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Autumn 2012 Newsletter
20 November 2012

TS Learner in Transylvania “Me and the Babas”

This has been both an exhausting and inspiring half of the year.

Now that I’m well into the working draft of my next thriller I’ve had two extremely exciting research trips since the summer (when incidentally I managed to squeeze in my wedding).  The first was to Zurich (where the bulk of the novel will be set). I was there to interview for three areas of the new TS Learner book I’m working on. The first area was tracking down information about the fate of the Nazi ‘gold’ and cultural treasures (including gold coins) plundered from both the Jews and the Rrom (gypsies) in the holocaust and then lodged in Swiss bank vaults or laundered through the art galleries of Basel and Zurich. The second area of research was looking at the structure and workings of a family-run watch company and general locations and ambience of Zurich and its surrounds in 1981 (the year the book is set).

I tend to start with a storyline that is developed and influenced by research along the way until I shut down (around third draft – I often do over eight complete drafts of my books) and concentrate solely on the prose and psychology of the characters having covered all the historical details and plot nuances. Unromantic, but as my original training was that of a sculptor I suspect I have a very pragmatic approach to the actual structuring of the narrative – have to have an armature to hang the plaster off.

I’ve also noticed a strange synchronicity that happens in research when you are on the right path, a wondrous knack of contacting (or being put in contact with) exactly the right people to interview. This happened in Zurich, my first interviews were at the Roma Foundation of Zurich with both Cristina Kruck and Dr Stephane Laederich, both political activists and academics immersed in both Rrom history and culture. Listening to them it was then I settled on making my Rrom characters Kalderash (as opposed to Kale or Gitan  – the most well-known gypsy group and arguably more reader familiar – think musician/ flamenco/Spain/France ) – traditionally metal workers in both copper, gold and silver they lost a lot of gold when they were rounded up and marched out of Romania by the fascists and then ‘resettled’ in detention camps in Ukraine (ally of Hitler).

I also interviewed Professor Jakob tanner of Zurich University, one of the academics hired for the independent report on Swiss/German trading during the 2nd world war. He was also fascinating, particularly on the laundering of ‘confiscated’ art works through numerous Swiss art galleries by the Nazis. Difficult to impossible to trace because the galleries themselves kept no records, all of this was vital to my plot and well-known but there’s nothing like hearing it direct from the field to really have an idea of the scale and the moral indifference of people involved in such dealings. He also told me the Swiss, despite a request from the Allies to stop trading with the Nazis in 1942, continued on. ‘It was business as usual right to the last day of the war’ he told me, implying the Swiss, if anything, are a pragmatic people.

My next stop was the International Watch Company in the delightful town of Schaffhausen situated near the largest fresh waterfall in Europe. I wanted to understand both the technical history and the power play and nuances of a family-run Swiss German watch company for the background of my central character and IWC was extremely generous and kind to facilitate this.

Firstly I have to point out that IWC had a strong Allied/English/US connection as an American originally founded them in the 19th century. They even made watches for the RAF for decades after the war, so in this they do not resemble my watch company in anyway. But the structure and the same economical dilemmas (mechanical versus electronic in the late 60’s, early 70’s – the event of the cheap swatch watch etc) as well as the challenges of changing from an outsourced cottage industry to having all the watch makers on site (the original assemblage line) and maintaining the equilibrium of a company board peppered with demanding family members was all fantastic material to draw upon for my manuscript. Many thanks to the in-house historian David Seyffer for providing such an articulate potted history.


My second research trip was to spend a week visiting and interviewing Kalderash Rrom (gypsies) both holocaust survivors and those who had experienced crossing from the (soviet) East to the (capitalist) West (and vice versa) in early 1980’s. My conduit was the delightful gypsy poetess Luminita Cioaba, who, like myself, had family members affected by the holocaust, in her case her father survived it as a baby, in my case my great grandfather and great uncle both perished in the concentration camps. Luminita was exactly the right person as she herself has made a documentary about the Romanian Rrom and the holocaust, and had being Kalderash herself, had many contacts in the community.  We started out from Sibiu, drove onto Timisoara (where a massacre had once triggered the revolution that overthrew the dictator Ceausescu) where we interviewed Dolphi, about his experiences in the early 1980’s crossing borders the ‘Rom’ way. Also the community leader, he was a delightful orator with a strong sense of humour, we also attended a funeral which has to be once of the most emotional events I’ve ever experienced. The whole community was out in the street, empty trucks covered in walls of flowers waiting to transport both the coffin and the relatives to the crematorium while the whole street wails and grieves around the open coffin.

The next day we drove on through the beautiful but intrepid road to the small town of Valcea, Luminita (deeply religious) kept reassuring me there were two people at the wheel – her and Jesus  – I wasn’t as convinced but we made it! There we interviewed two babas (grandmothers) both survivors of the holocaust, listening to terrible stories of forced displacement then starvation and disease that wiped out a good third of those taken. Basically at the beginning of the war the Romanian fascists under the thin pretence of a promise of land and cattle, marched the Romanian Kalderash gypsies across the border into Ukraine (Ukraine was an ally of Hitler) ‘resettled’ them in mud-built shelters with nothing but branches and leaves as bedding. The number of shelters were too few for the number of gypsies relocated, many simply froze to death, then over the next few years they were starved and enslaved to the local peasantry to work the fields. Typhus killed off hundreds of thousand, at the end of the war those left walked bare-footed back to their villages in Romania only to be bombed accidentally by allied planes (who assumed from the camp fires they were retreating German soldiers) or freeze or drowned trying to cross the Nistrau river that marks the Ukraine/Romania border. About a third returned finally, in 1944/45.

I heard stories of starvation, people driven to having to eat their dead, rape and murder and a living situation that was unimaginably harsh. I interviewed a variety of Rrom survivors, a man who was 107 years old, whose wife had been shoot dead for resisting rape by a German soldier and whose children had later died of typhus, another man who was a child witness to these horrors, met another man who was born in the camps and somehow survived.  We also visited a small Rrom village Bratei Da where the Kalderash men are traditional copper workers and make a variety of copper utensils including fantastic copper stills the local Romanians use to distil their plums and herbs into the local plum liqueur (incredibly strong but doesn’t give you a hang-over!). These were very steam-punk and works of art in their own right. The house I visited had its own water well in the courtyard, a great open workshop at the back of the house where the men beat the copper into the various utensils, this family also had some antiques that they’d held onto for over a hundred years (ornamental both gold and copper -) so this was another context that confirmed the accuracy of my plot-line. Over all you had to have been there to experience the warmth, generosity and friendliness I was welcomed with, it was profound to have experienced that community spirit and it really made me question my own value system upon my return, invaluable in terms of both research and a life experience.