My inspiration for Sara Sternschein
Posted on: Thursday, February 16, 2017
Sara Sternschein’s life ended that day in the spring of 1938 when she sat down at a café in Hamburg for a coffee and a cigarette. A covert police photograph of the attractive young woman, smoking in the sunshine at an outside table, found its way onto the desk of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo. He was immediately interested.
What Heydrich saw in the young Jewish girl became apparent when Sara was arrested, taken to Berlin and put to work in the Gestapo’s infamous brothel the Salon Kitty. The brothel, which was equipped with hidden cameras, was used by Gestapo to blackmail and discredit opponents of the Nazi regime, especially disloyal Wehrmacht officers.
Heydrick made Sara the lead lady in the Salon for the simple but brutal reason that it would give him greater powers of blackmail over those caught in her embrace. Liaisons with a Jewish girl meant death in Nazi Germany. There was no escape for Sara nor for any of the brothel girls. The Gestapo threatened bloody reprisals against their families for even minor infractions of the Salon Kitty rules. Those rules were simple. Obey Reinard Heydrich.
This mix of fact and fiction is woven into the story that unfolds in Midnight in Berlin
. At the centre of that story is Sara Sternschein. What happened to my fictional character did indeed happen to many young women who were forced to work in the Salon which was a very real establishment. Heydrich, one of the most monstrous of the satanic Nazi leadership, personally supervised the brothel and selected those to work there. Young women, entirely innocent and often from good families were seized without warning from regional cities, as was Sara Sternschein, and driven to the Salon. Heydrich never recruited his courtesans from Berlin itself.
Sara was finally saved from sexual servitude by a high risk love affair with one of the brothel’s unwitting clients, a British diplomat. Through the lens of their relationship we see a young woman desperate to protect her family and prepared to make any sacrifice to do so.
My fictional Sara Sternschein was unlucky. Her family, like so many others, had not heeded the warnings and did not flee when there was still time. There were some 600,000 Jews in Germany when the Second World War broke out many of whom would perish in the gas chambers.
The young woman whom I knew well and whose name I have given to my heroine was much luckier. Barbara Sternschein and I met at St Andrews University in the 60s and shared the same circle of close friends for many years. Barbara’s parents had the foresight to leave Vienna, Austria before the true nature of the Nazi regime became apparent. Barbara was a wonderful, lively intelligent young woman, bubbling over with high spirits and good humour, exactly as I imagined my fictional character to have been before that Gestapo photograph. Barbara was happily married with two young children when she contracted cancer at an appallingly young age. She was just 47 when she died in 1994. I like to think that a little bit of her lives on in my courageous heroine.
You can pre-order the paperback edition of my novel Midnight in Berlin here