Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Meet Susan Bartoletti
My name is Susan Campbell Bartoletti and I write fiction and non-fiction for young readers. Now I was not always a children's book author. Before I was a children's book author, I was an 8th grade English teacher and I taught 8th grade for 18 years. All the while that I was teaching, I was also writing. In fact, I did all the homework. If my students wrote a poem, I wrote a poem. If they wrote a story, I wrote a story.
They would bring their work into class and we'd share and talk about ways that could make their writing better. Sometimes I'd bring my work into class and share and they'd tell me how to make my work better. I credit my 8th grade students with giving me my voice and my audience because at that time, I had no idea that I was going to become a writer, especially somebody who likes to write for young readers. The young people that I began teaching many years ago and the young people that I see outside in schools today when I visit, I think they do share one trait still and that's this.
They all hunger for a good story. They want a good story well told. And so when we look at their reading habits, they're getting stories in many different ways. You know, the technology today gives them the ability to go for stories on the internet. They get their stories by going to newspapers and magazines. They get their stories by text messaging their friends and whatever they do with their phones. And they're still going to the library and they're still going to the book stores.
When I'm visiting schools, I'm thrilled to see them carrying books and I'm thrilled to see that they are getting excited about reading. But when you think about it, we all hunger for a story. And I think it's universal. I don't think that's ever going to go away, that need that we have for a good story well told.
Digging into history
I like to look at the role that young people play in history and so I often find myself digging into history in order to find stories — true stories — about children who have made a difference. When I was reading around about World War II — I knew I wanted to write on World War II — I stumbled across a 1944 magazine in which an American journalist claimed that the Nazi party rode to power on the shoulders of politically active youth.
Well, my goodness! That just made my heart turn over. Most of the time when I'm looking at the role that young people have played in history, I'm finding stories of how young people have used their power for good. I've long been interested in the stories of child labor. And in the States, young people have worked together, they have lobbied together and they have gone out on strike for better working and living conditions. I've looked at the role that young girls have played in history, as well. And so when I came across that statement, the first thing it did — it was heart-wrenching.
I thought, "Is this true? Is it true that young people actually helped a man like Hitler come to power?" And so, of course, when I wanna find out if something is true, I run to the library. And so I hurried to the library and I checked out every single book I could on the subject of World War II.
And as I began to read, the story of politically active youth became clear to me and I realized that that was the story that I wanted to tell. Now back in Germany during the days of the Third Reich, it was law that compelled young people to join the Hitler Youth. If they were eligible, meaning that they were Arian and they were between the ages of 10 and 18, they had to join.
There were no other youth groups for them to join. And out of all the young people, 82% of them joined. Well, that also means that 18% did not join. And I'm always interested When I look at history, I'm interested in who's in the history story, who's there and who's left out. And so I also wanted to look at those young people who did not join and that's how I found the stories of heroes like Sophie Scholl, who had been a member, but then she and her older brother Hans formed the White Rose Resistance Group. That's how I found the story of the three best friends who together distributed leaflets to wake up the people of Germany. And so I look for those stories that turn the heart.
Making meaning out of chaos
I begin my books the same way that every other writer begins for the most part, and also the way young people begin. You know, when students are assigned a paper I begin by reading all the secondary sources I can. I take notes, I take stacks of notes. I print out my notes on index cards. That's sort of a little old fashioned, but I still think it works really, really well. And I am looking for information, as I said; not just the facts, but I'm looking for those details that are going to breathe life into the story.
After I locate the standard works on the subject, I branch out and I begin looking for primary sources. I look for newspapers, magazines, photographs, letters, diaries. Most of all, I like looking for people to interview. And, as my kids will tell you, I can find you anywhere. And so I begin And that's when the internet also becomes important. Not only do I find names in published sources, but also on the internet I have been able to track down some people. For Hitler Youth, I tracked down former Hitler Youth members who are now men and women in their 70s and 80s.
I found them in Germany and in Austria and in Great Britain and even here in the States. So that's really the research process. Many of the Hitler Youth members — former Hitler Youth members — agreed to talk to me. They invited me into their homes. We spoke over the telephone. We exchanged e-mails and letters. Some did not agree to talk to me and that silence is always a question. It's a really interesting question, one that readers often ask themselves, "Why did these people refuse to talk?"
Now I also thought it would be unfair to tell the story of the Hitler Youth without also seeking out Jews who were children and teenagers during the years of the Third Reich. And so I searched them out and I found them in Germany and Austria and England and here in the States. Understandably, they were cautious when I told them the subject of my research, but not one refused to talk to me. For, as we know, stories are a way of making meaning out of chaos. Stories teach us. They warn us. They tell us never to forget. And so their stories, as well, became a very important part of Hitler Youth.
Now writing about such a controversial, emotional, laden subject like Hitler Youth is very difficult was very difficult. I mean, when you think — just say the name Adolph Hitler and what it does to your heart? What interested me in the beginning was that these young people who joined the Hitler Youth were actually joining because they thought it was the patriotic thing to do.
I mean, by the year 1930, Germany was in a mess. They were in a mess because they had lost World War I and they signed the Treaty of Versailles and today most scholars agree that the terms of that treaty were very harsh. By 1930, there was widespread unemployment, there was widespread poverty. Germany had to pay these extremely high taxes called reparations to pay for the damage that they had caused. And along came a man like Adolph Hitler who promised that he would make things better. He promised jobs. He promised to end poverty. He promised to end those taxes so that the high taxes would no longer have to be paid.
In essence, he promised to break the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. We know today that everything that he promised was no secret. He made his intentions very clear right from the beginning. Now some young people got on board with that message because they did not see hope in their future. Young people like Herbert Norcus, who came from very poor circumstances and saw that a good job was not likely in his future he saw that he had little opportunity to go on to school because his family couldn't afford it. These were young people who got on board with that message.
Must never invent
Now when I'm writing, I care very much about these young people. And one of the questions that I began thinking about as I was writing is who were these young people? Were they monsters? Were they brainwashed victims? Were they something in between? And I didn't have an answer to that question when I began because I don't have answers to those sorts of questions. I need to write. I write to discover. I write to learn. I write to create meaning.
And I think it is up to the reader to decide for himself or herself what the answer to that question is. Now that scene comes to life because I use the same literary devices that a fiction writer users. I start with a setting. I need to know where and when the story takes place. I move into character, which was Herbert Norkus. I ask myself, I try to discover through research, what did my character want more than anything, and from my research I was able to determine, his desire to belong to this patriotic group because it would mean a difference in his future.
And so those are the same literary devices that a fiction writer might use. It's the use of the primary sources that breathe life into non-fiction writing. You know, that is what gives the writing the cadence, that's what gives it breadth. It's the primary sources, I believe, that quicken the story — that bring it to life. The difference between fiction and non-fiction is this. In non-fiction, I must never invent. And I'm gonna repeat that because it is so important. It's so important I think it should be a constitutional amendment. Must never invent. Every fact, every quote that I use in non-fiction must be verifiable. If there are gaps in the research, I need to fill them in a way that is fair and in a way that will be accurate based on the research.
Drawn to the dark side
I understand that often we find that boys are more turned on to non-fiction than girls are, and I think about that sometimes. I think the books that I write are especially interesting to boys. I can't help it; I'm drawn to the dark side, I'm drawn to the dark stories. And I love looking for those dark stories because I just want to figure them out. I want to understand why. I want to make meaning out of them. I find that I get a lot of letters and e-mails especially from boys who really enjoy reading about stories like the Third Reich when they want to try to figure out Hitler and what would cause a man to do such a thing.
They like to put themselves in the roles of the young people in the books. They enjoy the photographs, I mean, because that makes very active reading. So I find that boys are getting turned on to reading through non-fiction. I like my non-fiction to serve a couple of purposes. One, if I have a reluctant reader, I love using photographs. I love doing the photo research for one thing. For me, that's very rewarding. But I also find that it pulls readers into the text so they can use the pictures. And so reluctant readers I think we're tricking them into reading by getting the best possible images to reflect the story.
And so I think the images are doing double duty. I think, for one, they are pulling readers into the text and they are illustrating the text. Some people like to read a story through images and so they can also read the story of the Hitler Youth by reading the images as they page through the book.
I'm often asked out of all the books that I've written if I have a favorite book, and the answer is no. But I do have favorite people that I meet along the way. I have favorite characters. Some of them are real characters and some of them are fictional characters. When I was writing Hitler Youth, and I stumbled across the story of the three best friends, Helmuth Hubener, Rudi Wobbe and Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, who had the courage as teenagers to resist Hitler — that was a story I could not let go of.
Even though I wrote about it in Hitler Youth, I found myself waking up still thinking about it, wondering how did these boys manage to do this. How did they have such courage? Well, when I located Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, I wrote him a letter and asked him if he'd be willing to meet with me in order to tell me the story of what he and his two best friends did. Now I know Helmuth Hubener had made the ultimate sacrifice, but I didn't know what had happened to Rudi Wobbe and Karl-Heinz Schnibbe so I began to search for them. I discovered that Rudi had died several years ago, but that Karl-Heinz Schnibbe was very much alive. So I wrote him a letter and I asked him if he would be willing to meet with me, and then I mailed it.
Well, I waited. I waited about 10 days and then one night — late at night — the telephone rang, and when I answered it, it was a man's voice with a musically German accent. And he said, "Hello, Susan. This is Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and I'd be happy to meet with you." Well, I packed my suitcase so fast. I was on a plane flying out to meet him and as I sat on that plane, I found myself turning over the question, "What was it like? What was Helmuth's last day like?" Well, without even knowing it, I had begun to write that book. You see, not every question can be answered in non-fiction.
Sometimes we're left with the question that just haunts us as writers. And as I would look at Helmut's portrait and as I would look at those eyes, I found myself wondering, "How did you do it? How did you have the courage?" Well, I interviewed Karl and relied on his interview for much of the story. But I wasn't done because I also wanted to know what about Helmuth's older brother Gerhard who had fought with the German army and who had brought home a contraband radio and locked it away. Well, he locked it away and said to his brother, "Now don't touch this because you know it's illegal to listen to foreign radio news."
But Helmuth was 16 and what would you do? Soon as his brother left for war, he jimmied open that closet, took out the radio and began to listen to it at night with his two best friends. I thought about that brother and I wondered, "How did he feel being the one responsible for bringing home the radio?" And so I began to search for him and I found him and he agreed to meet with me as well. And so I flew out to meet him and I sat with him for several hours interviewing him. And I went off page at one point. I went off the questions that I had and Gerhard was telling me that he was in poor health.
He was 84 years old. He had had several heart attacks. And I said to him, cause he's very devout in his faith and he said that soon he would be in heaven, and I said, "Oh, well, Gerhard, when you see your brother again, what are you gonna say to him?" And Gerhard told me that a 16-year-old boy should have known better; that a 16-year-old boy cannot change the government. And he said the Nazis were too hard on him and that should not have happened. But a 16-year-old boy should have known better. Well, there my heart turned right over because you have irony. You have irony. Gerhard was a very brave soldier for the Germans.
He won medals of honor because he did what his country asked of him even though he was not a Nazi, had never been a Nazi and did not believe in the Nazi doctrine. But he did what his country asked of him. In the meantime, we have Helmuth home resisting the war. We have experienced that very same contradiction here in our own country when we think about the soldiers who have gone off to war, who do what their country asks of them, and when we think of those who stay home and resist the war.
Reading from Hitler Youth
I'm Susan Campbell Bartoletti and I'd like to read to you, from my non-fiction book, Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow.
The Bloody Handprint, the Murder of Herbert Norkus, Sunday, January 24th, 1932. It was a typical dark, wintry morning in Moabit, a drab, industrial section of Berlin, the capital of Germany. It was early, not yet 5:00, but 15-year-old Herbert Norkus was already up hurriedly dressing. Herbert buttons the brown shirt of his Hitler Youth uniform and slipped the swastika arm band onto his forearm. He grabbed his winter coat and soft, peaked, brown trench cap before rushing out of the service quarters on the factory grounds where he lived with his father and younger brother. His father worked as a stoker at the factory barely earning enough to make ends meet. His mother had died the year before after a long illness. Herbert belonged to the Hitler Jugend or Hitler Youth, an organization of teenagers dedicated to Adolph Hitler.
Hitler was the leader of the rising National Socialist Party called Nazi for short. Mrs. Norkus had forbidden Herbert to join the Hitler Youth calling it too dangerous, but she had feared the Communist or Reds even more. She warned Herbert to keep himself distant from the Reds at Gerhard, a Hitler Youth leader. Bloody street fights often erupted between the Nazis and the Communists. But after Mrs. Norkus died in 1931, Herbert's father relented and gave his son permission to join the Hitler Youth. Mr. Norkus believed that the Hitler Youth would be good for Herbert, especially after his mother's death.
He hoped that the group would lift his son's spirits, help him make new friends and instill a sense of discipline in him. It did. On weekends, Herbert and the Hitler Youth hiked and camped in the countryside. With the Jungschar, the naval branch of the Hitler Youth, Herbert boated on the waters in Tetlow Park in eastern Berlin. Herbert also enjoyed distributing leaflets throughout the Berlin neighborhoods. The propaganda blitz, as the Hitler Youth called it, spread information about the Nazi party. It was dangerous work but Herbert took the Nazi's creed of self-sacrifice seriously. That morning, as Herbert passed the crumbling brick tenement buildings and treeless courtyards, he watched out for Reds.
There was no telling when a Red might jump out of nowhere to pick a fight. More than once, Herbert had escaped serious injury by outwitting or outrunning his attackers. Quick on his feet, he had dashed across the bridge and hid in the pine forest around the new Johannes Cemetery. Soon, Herbert found his unit — about 15 in all. Gerhart Monte handed each boy a stack of leaflets and cautioned them to be on ready alert. The boys paired off for safety and fanned out in separate directions. Herbert and his friend, Johannes Kirsch, worked their way up and down the streets stuffing fliers into tenement mailboxes and doorways.
As they left one dark tenement and headed toward another, they spotted a group of about 40 boys standing a short distance away. At once, Herbert realized that the boys were Reds. Cautiously, he and Johannes headed towards the next house prepared to run if necessary. Suddenly, footsteps rang on the pavement behind them. "Stand still," warned one of the Communist Youths. But Johannes stubbornly dropped a flier into the doorway. Infuriated, the Red leaped at Johannes, striking him squarely in the back. Johannes stumbled, but regained his footing.
He darted into the darkness and ducked behind a large garbage can. Herbert also sped off down the street trailed by the Communist gang. Turning the corner he spotted a milk store, its windows brightly lit. He rushed over and banged on the door hollering for help. A night watchman opened the door and, possibly because he spotted the other boys, slammed it shut. Herbert raced to the next building, but the boys caught up to him. They pounced on him, knocking him to the pavement. Herbert fought punching and kicking. Breaking away, he scrambled to his feet and ran to another building.
Hollering for help, he pounded on door after door. No one answered. Once more, the Reds cornered Herbert. They grabbed him and threw him to the ground stabbing him six times. Despite his wounds, Herbert fought wildly and somehow managed to break away. Leaving a bloody trail he stumbled toward a lighted window. He pounded on the door. Inside, Marie Jobs was awakened by the commotion. She hurried to the door and saw her mother bent over a crumpled body. It was Herbert, collapsed in the corridor, his bloodied handprint on the brick wall. "Help me," he gasped. "I've been attacked." The Communist gang fled. Marie's mother called a taxi. Herbert was rushed to the emergency room at Moabit Municipal Hospital, but it was too late. Herbert died shortly after admittance.