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HEARTS OF GOLD
was filmed as a mini-series by the BBC. It is the first of eight novels set in my home town of Pontypridd between 1930 and 1950. They relate the peace and wartime fortunes of the Powell and Ronconi families. The others are:
ONE BLUE MOON, A SILVER LINING, ALL THAT GLITTERS, SUCH SWEET SORROW, PAST REMEMBERING, BROKEN RAINBOWS, SPOILS OF WAR.
SWANSEA GIRLS,SWANSEA SUMMER,
Follows the lives of four teenage girls all looking for romance in 1950 Swansea. They live in Carlton Terrace, an area of town I know well as my husband and I made our first home in a basement flat there after our marriage.
BEGGARS & CHOOSERS,
WINNERS & LOSERS,
SINNERS & SHADOWS
Span the years between 1906 and 1918. Set in my father’s home town in the Rhondda at the time of the Tonypandy riots.
Features characters from the Beggars & Choosers trilogy and the Irish blacklegs brought in my pit management to break the 1911 miners’ strike.
FINDERS AND KEEPERS
I used Madame Patti’s Castle, Craig y Nos in the Swansea Valley as a backdrop to this story of poverty and deprivation in rural Wales.
TIGER BAY BLUES,
Are both set in Cardiff’s multi-cultural Tiger Bay community in the 1930’s and feature some of the characters from the Beggars and Choosers series of books.
America 1968. Protests against the Vietnam War, for Civil Rights, sit-ins, love-ins, happenings – youth pitted against the establishment, hoping to create a better world.
Everyone has one special summer. For British students Penny and Kate, and Americans Bobby and Sandy, it was that summer on Cape Cod. Warm languid days filled with love, laughter and music. Until the night Bobby’s car crashed and burst into flames, and a bitter old woman took control, changing the survivors’ lives for ever.
Secrets carried to the grave don’t always stay buried.
Following the death of her mother in the 1960’s, a young girl travels from Pontypridd to the village she and her mother were taken from by the Nazis shortly after her birth.
ONE LAST SUMMER
Is a book based on my Prussian born mother & grandmother’s wartime diaries and recommended reading on the Holocaust Day Memorial website. An old woman returns to her wartime home after fifty years in exile. There, she relives the one great love of her life and faces the demons that have haunted her for over half a century.
A page of my mother’s diary
I have always been fascinated by my family history and from an early age wanted to know how ordinary German men and women could allow the monstrous Nazi regime to take control of their country. And, after seeing the footage taken at the Nuremberg rallies, how the entire population could go into denial after the war and attempt to wipe Nazi history from the record books. However, I was one of a generation who was not allowed to ask questions. If we ever dared, we were met with a stony silence.
My mother was born Gerda Salewski in Allenstein, East Prussia, in 1926. Her father, Albert Salewski, was a self-made man, an architect, master builder and Burgomaster of the town. My grandmother, Martha Plewe, was a member of an old close-knit Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) clan that could trace its roots back to the 12th century.
An Inspirational Journey The inspiration for One Last Summer came in 1995, when I accompanied my mother back to the home her family fled in 1945. East Prussia was divided between Russia and Poland in 1947, Allenstein renamed Olsztyn, and the country repopulated by Poles and Russians. The Polish Rodzina family, the contemporary inhabitants of the house, welcomed us as if we were lifelong friends. They allowed us not only to stay in the dream house my grandfather had built for his family in 1936, but also to sleep in Gerda’s old bedroom.
My mother had a comfortable middle-class upbringing. She showed signs of musical talent at an early age and her education was supplemented by lessons at a music academy. Like all German children at that time, she and her sister, my aunt, were members of the Hitler Youth (it was compulsory after 1936) and she toured extensively in Germany, Russia, Poland and the Eastern Front immediately before, and during the war. She had hoped to attend university, but Hitler closed all the German universities in 1944 and she, along with several classmates, was drafted into the Luftwaffe and trained to operate the generators that supplied electricity for the searchlights used to spot Allied planes. At the time, she noted in her diary that there was rarely enough petrol available to run the generators.
A Terrifying time In January 1945, Russian forces invaded East Prussia. At that time my mother was stationed in the North East. My grandmother and aunt were in Allenstein which they had to flee without warning, leaving their lunch on the table, but luckily managing to escape on the last train that left for the West from Allenstein station. As she fled westward with her unit on foot, my mother only just managed to stay ahead of the invading army. Several of her friends were killed by bombs, strafing and the Russians. Two were shot by their commanding officers for trying to desert.With the allies closing in on all sides, their unit became stranded in Bavaria near Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s estate at Berghof. It was there that she saw the horrors of Dachau.
Family in Konigsberg 1933 Only eight people in this photograph survived the war, including the bride and groom and my mother – the bridesmaid on the rug holding flowers (to the left).
When it became obvious to the officers that Germany had lost the war, the girls were told to go home – if they had a home left to go to. Sadly, my mother didn’t, so she went from farm to farm looking for work and was eventually taken in by a kindly widow who offered her bed and board in exchange for help around the farm. The widow also generously gave her a curtain, with which my mother made a civilian dress to disguise herself. If she hadn’t been able to pass as a civilian, she would have been placed in a POW camp by the Allies for collaborating with the Nazi regime. She remained in Bavaria for several months. Germany was in chaos. She didn’t know if any of her family had survived, and with East Prussia in Russian hands it was impossible for her to return home. During that time several of her friends from the unit discovered that their entire families had been massacred during the Russian invasion. In the winter of 1945 my mother was shot and injured by a drunken French soldier who wanted more than she was prepared to give him in exchange for a sack of looted women’s clothes. Ironically, he had actually done her a favour, since the doctor who dressed her wound had been in Northern Germany and had seen my mother’s sister.
A Family Reunited Desperate to find her sister, my mother was able to gain assistance from a Jewish man she had befriended in Dachau. Now released, he had papers entitling him to food and lodging in any town in Germany. In search of survivors from his own family he was about to travel north, and offered to take my mother with him. At the end of a long journey, she eventually found her mother and sister – my grandmother and aunt – living in the town of Gifhorn. Having lost everything, my grandmother had found work as a cook for a small British unit. My aunt was their interpreter/typist, and when the compassionate commanding officer heard my mother’s story, he offered her a job as maid to the unit.
The first day Gerda turned up for work in the stonemason’s house that the British had requisitioned as their headquarters, she saw the unit’s driver sitting on an unfinished tombstone in the yard. That driver was Welsh Guardsman Glyn Jones. And although she didn’t know it at the time, that Welshman would later become her husband and my father.
They fell in love before the fraternisation laws were lifted, but as a result of letters written to George Thomas (Lord Tonypandy) by my Welsh grandmother, my mother was given a berth on the first German war-bride boat, which docked at Tilbury in June 1947. My parents married in Pontypridd in July 1947 and I was born a year later.
Although I grew up in Wales in an extended and loving Welsh family, I have always been conscious of my East Prussian heritage. I remained close to my German grandmother until her death in Wales in 1978. She never ceased mourning the loss of her mother, sister and other members of her family who disappeared in Konigsberg in January 1945. Not knowing how or where they had died added to her anguish.
I hope One Last Summer will be seen in part as a tribute to my ancestors – these lost people from a lost country.
This is a brilliant site for everyone who is interested in Konigsberg the former capital of East Prussia.
Now part of Russia and renamed Kaliningrad I have recently returned from a research trip to the city where I tracked down my family’s former homes. I hope to set a novel in the city soon.