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 just 50 years old, with two grown up children when she died from cancer in 1994. In a life cruelly cut short she had achieved a great deal as one of several obituaries below reveals.
You can pre-order the paperback edition of my novel Midnight in Berlin here
"Barbara Sternschein, film-maker, theatre producer, arts entrepreneur: born June 1944; married 1968 Murray Grigor (two daughters); died Edinburgh 17 October 1994.
IT WOULD be easy but quite wrong to say that the death of Barbara Grigor left Scotland a poorer country. In her short life - she was only 50 when she died - she enriched and embellished and stimulated Scottish culture in countless ways. That she died so young was very cruel. The many thousands who knew her or were touched by her work can only mourn with her husband Murray Grigor, the film-maker who was her partner in so many bold and original enterprises, and with her daughters Phoebe and Sarah. But she left Scotland a wiser, more sophisticated country, and its artists more confident about their place in the world.
She was the child of Rudi and Leni Sternschein, Jewish refugees from Austria. From that background she brought not only her looks - a melting Viennese beauty, which reminded me of the late Lilli Palmer - but an intellectual energy, a Central European delight in the fun and sparkle of new ideas which did not stop at talk, as so often happens in Scotland, but would not rest until ideas had become a reality: an exhibition, a film, a theatre production and then - almost invariably - one of those high-octane parties which she and Murray would throw in their old stone house at Inverkeithing, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh.
With Murray, whom she married in 1968, and Lynda Myles, she took part in the capture of the Edinburgh Film Festival in the late 1960s by a group of dazzling radical intellectuals in their twenties, and helped to transform it into a carnival of new ideas about film which set fashions throughout Europe. As a partner with Murray in the film company Viz, Barbara learned all the skills of organisation, the marshalling of support and money, which complemented Murray's own hurtling torrent of ideas. Her interest in other arts, especially sculpture, led to the first big retrospective exhibition by their friend Eduardo Paolozzi at the 1984 Edinburgh Festival and to a pioneering film which revived the half-forgotten achievements of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Barbara Grigor set up the Landmark Sculpture Trust, which in the last 20 years enlisted most of Scotland's best artists, and then the Scottish Sculpture Trust, which she chaired and which sent work to exhibitions all over Europe. It was Barbara's energy which brought forward the startling gifts of artists like George Wylie and George Rickey, and which broke through many obstructions to get a marvellous bronze memorial to the poet Hugh MacDiarmid put up near his home town of Langholm, in the Borders.
Above all, Murray and Barbara Grigor held a mirror up to Scotland and forced the nation to laugh at what it saw. Their famous 'Scotch Myths' exhibition in 1981 charged straight at the grisly tangle of sentimental kitsch which passed for the national self-image, the complex which the political thinker Tom Nairn called 'the Tartan Monster'. It was followed by a heretical 'Scotch Myths' Hogmanay show on television, and the Monster has been weakened and derided ever since.
Brought to this summer's Film Festival in a wheelchair, Barbara fought her cancer with wonderful courage to the end. Her warmth and her gaiety can never be replaced. But she was very much loved, and she left Scotland a richer place than she found it."
Published in The Independent in 1994 - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-barbara-grigor-1443768.html