For a writer, there is a special thrill when a reader is inspired to be creative after finishing one of their books, especially when it happens twice.
I’d already posted a painting of Der Sturmtaucher, the gaff-rigged ketch which has a central role in The Flight of the Shearwater, sent to me by Mark Jardine, one of my beta-readers, and the owner of a working gaff-rigged ketch called Birthe Marie, a converted traditional Danish fishing boat which he uses to sail visitors around the beautiful islands of Mull and Iona on Scotland’s stunning west coast.
Then, in September this year, William A McMillan was one of the poets reading at an event at the Tidelines Book Festival in Irvine, where I also did a reading from The Sturmtaucher Trilogy. It was a reunion of sorts, but we hadn’t seen each other for a decade. so it was lovely to catch up.
We chatted about my books, his poetry and his art, much of it centred around wildlife and the countryside of South Ayrshire. It was a pleasant surprise to discover our respective new ‘careers’.
Then, towards the end of November, he got in touch saying that he’d been inspired by reading the Sturmtaucher Trilogy to write a poem about a Manx Shearwater, the seabird that runs as a theme through the Sturmtaucher Trilogy (Sturmtaucher is German for Shearwater), in Antje Kästner’s art, in the sailing passages in the North Sea, and in the gaff-rigged ketch named for it.
He’d also done a drawing of a shearwater to accompany the poem. Here is the poem, and the picture.
Gliding low over rising tides
Swooping through scooped out troughs of air
That run beneath the soaring sides
Of mountainous wave crests growing there
Sheer walls of water shall be your home
Cutting your way through the ocean’s grain
Journeying forth by the green spume foam
The shearwater flies, far from safe nests
From cradled burrow to watery grave
The wanderer ploughs on, alone
Her life, an endless long-distance race
Stark sentinel in a timeless place
A streamlined vision of nature’s grace
The salt-laden miles are her dominion
The wind and the weather her constant companion
Crying her song to the fathomless ocean
Surfing the churn of the water’s swift motion
Never halting, never ceasing
She glides out her life in headlong flight
Wing tips circling the depths of night
Drawn by some instinct within her soul
That points her to home where the breakers roll
At last, to the cliff by the soft grass furrow
And the quiescent peace of her own safe burrow
William A McMillan
Many thanks to William for allowing me to post both the poem and the drawing, and to Mark Jardine for giving kind permission to reproduce his painting.
You can see further examples of William’s artwork, photography and poetry on his Facebook page.
When I started researching the Sturmtaucher Trilogy back in late 2016, I was dismayed to find that, unlike most countries in Europe, Germany did not allow Google to roll out Streetview. At a stroke, my ability to walk the streets of Kiel and other parts of Germany from the comfort of my writing chair had gone, and while maps and old photographs were abundant and helpful, with a bit of digging, it was harder to get a real sense of the locations I was looking for as I plotted my story.
In 2017, I visited Northern Germany to try and get a handle on the city that would become the centre of my life for the next five years, to get my head around its topography, and that of the countryside around it.
I also wanted to speak to the people who lived there, and walk the streets to see if any of the buildings that I’d located using 1930-40s maps and photographs were still there.
I knew that large swathes of Kiel had been decimated during the latter part of WW2, and that the many of the buildings I wanted to describe had gone forever; the centre of Kiel is largely a new city, arising from the ashes of the old one, and when I arrived, I found it more difficult than I imagined to place myself in the 1930s streets when modern roads and concrete buildings surrounded me.
Then I’d turn a corner and fragments of the old Kiel I’d seen in the photographs would emerge; the occasional row of apartment blocks that had survived; a church, a junction, an avenue of trees, and most of all, the parks and open spaces that had always been there for the citizens of Kiel.
I’d obtained a scan of a British Army map of Kiel from the 1940s in the British Library, with many of the major buildings, factories and utilities identified. I plotted a route on it of all the places I wanted to visit, and wondered how that would translate to modern-day Kiel. With surprisingly few minor detours, I could walk the same route!
I left my rented room in Lang Reihe, where, in the trilogy, Lise and Rudolf Mey would have their first flat, and strolled the short distance to Kleiner Kuhberg, the location of the Judenhaus that housed Kiel’s remaining Jews before they were deported east, to the Ghettos and camps of Poland and Latvia. Despite the shopping centre opposite, a few of the buildings on the other side of the street had just about survived, unlike the Jews who had lived there, and I could feel the past seeping into my bones.
FromKleiner Kuhberg, at the corner of Exerciserplatz, I took a right and headed for the Rathaus, the City Hall. A shell in August 1945, it has since been restored to its former glory. I took a table on the terrace outside the Ratskeller and sat overlooking the town square, renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz during the National Socialist era.
As I sipped my coffee, it struck me that it looked much the same as in the photograph I’d found of the National Socialist rally in March of that year, where, in The Gathering Storm, Erich Kästner would listen as ‘Stirring words of hate rained down on the crowd from the Rathaus’s balcony to a frenzied clamour of acclaim’.
I strolled around the pleasant waters of Kleiner Kiel, as the people of the city had done for centuries, crossing the bridge, now more of a causeway, that separated its two small lakes.
On its northern shore, in Lorentzendamm, I stopped in front of the City Savings Bank.
The Städtische Sparkasse had just about survived the bombing of Kiel, though it had also been gutted. I had a scene or two in mind for the building, and the financial institution it represented.
A brisk walk away from the city centre, and around another of Kiel’s small lakes, Schreventeich, I could almost imagine the Kästner and the Nussbaum families taking their Sunday stroll through the heavily wooded park around its tranquil waters, before the biting restrictions of Nazi edicts made it too fearsome for Yosef, Miriam, Ruth and Manny to venture out.
The Synagogue, which had once looked on to the lake, had gone, of course, burned out during Kristallnacht in 1938 and demolished the following year.
The spot it had occupied now housed an apartment block, but there was a remnant of original wall in the parking lot with a plaque stating that it had once been part of the synagogue, and a memorial to the forgotten building, and Kiel’s Jews, had been erected on the pavement at the corner of Goethestraße and Humboldstraße. I stood in silence for a few minutes, and closed my eyes.
I already had a cast of characters in my head and, leaving the Synagogue and walking along JungmannStraße, I looked up as I passed what would become the Weichmann’s flat. They were close friends of the Nussbaums, and their home would play a big part further on in the story.
Content that it would fit the bill, I walked on. As I’d wandered around Kiel, I’d kept glancing down at the pavement, looking for stolpersteines, the small brass memorial plaques cemented into pavements all over Europe, each commemorating the last known address of a Holocaust victim; I’d roughly marked them on the crude map I’d made, and I stood for a moment as I found each one, recalling the brief biography that I’d read about the victim who had once lived there, written and researched by Kiel’s present-day schoolchildren and posted on the city’s municipal website. I photographed Getrud Wonker’s Stolpersteine, as I turned into Holtenauerstraße.
The deportation of Kiel’s Jews was overseen by the Gestapo, whose former headquarters were a fifteen-minute walk away. As I walked down Dupplestraße, in the leafy suburb of Dusternbrook, it was hard to believe I was drawing close to the epicentre of Nazi horror in Kiel.
The building itself looked innocuous, now a district police station and surprisingly modern for its age. The only indication that this had once been one of the most terrifying addresses in Schleswig-Holstein is a memorial to its victims on the grassy slope at the front of the building. A sculpture by artist Melanie Pilz, of a rubber stamp suspended above a list of victims, represents the misappropriation of authority for the unlawful killing of millions of innocent people by the Nazi regime.
I stood for a while in silence, still unable to equate the horrors the memorial represented with the peace and quiet of suburban Kiel.
Disturbed, I walked briskly northwards in the longest leg of my tour, towards another remnant of Kiel’s wartime past, this one representing the devastation suffered by the residents of Kiel during the bombing campaign waged against Germany, most heavily in 1944 and 1945.
The Flandernbunker is one of a number of massive concrete air shelters which have survived, largely due in the first instance to the difficulty in removing them, but latterly because they are a large part of Kiel’s history. This bunker has been converted into a museum, Mahnmal Kilian, commemorating both the bunker itself, and the U-boat shelters that were removed and filled in as part of the redevelopment strategy of the industrial east shore of Kiel Hafen. Minimal glazing has been installed to keep out the elements but as you walk through this impressive art space, studying the artefacts, photographs, films and art installations, a coldness creeps across your skin as you imagine the massive walls shaking under the intense bombardment that the RAF and the USAF released on Kiel as the war entered its bloodiest phase.
I’d also arranged to meet one of the curators of the Museum, Steffi Blix, while I was there, and it was great to get the Kiel historian’s insight into the war in Kiel from a German perspective.
As I stepped out of the bunker into the daylight again, I shivered as the bright sunshine slowly warmed me. It was only a stones throw to the northern end of the Keilline, the paved waterfront that runs from the Wik to the centre of Kiel. I’d seen the naval dockyard on the wartime map of Kiel – Tirpitzhafen stirred recognition; who hasn’t heard of the Tirpitz? Both were named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the Imperial German Navy.
Modern German warships, part of NATO, now berthed where Hitler’s famous battleships, the Bismarck, the Scharnhorst and the Tirpitz once lay. I tried to imagine the barrage balloons, the multitude of naval vessels, large and small, the throngs of Kreigsmarine personnel, and the air raid sirens, the anti-aircraft guns and the smell of smoke in the air as I walked along the serene waterfront.
I stopped at a café, on a wooden pier jutting out into the still waters, grabbing lunch as I gazed out across Kiel Hafen, full of not-so-distant history.
Stirring myself from the view, I crossed the road and climbed up the twisting path that led to the rise of Dusternbrook, even at just 80 feet elevation, one of the higher points on the west shore of Kiel Hafen. The path threaded through a bank of trees into a leafy avenue, lined by large villas of the style popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Presumably the leafier suburbs of Kiel had suffered less during Bomber Command’s campaign, with many of the houses surviving the war.
I needed a substantial villa for the General’s friend, affluent businessman Oskar von Friedeburg and, looking around, the well presented residences, with their view across Kiel Hafen and their seclusion, were perfect. I walked along Bismarckallee, imagining the curtains twitching at a stranger in the neighbourhood.
From there, it was short stroll down the hill to the former Kriegsmarine Headquarters, where, in the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, General Erich Kästner had his office, in his role as Liaison officer between the Abwehr, the Reich’s military intelligence organisation, and the German Navy.
It features heavily in the story; the General’s position allowed him access to a wealth of information which helped in his quest to protect his treasured Jewish employees, and he often met his close friend, and head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, in the building that is now seat of state government for Schleswig Holstein.
There is a marina on the shoreside where there had once been jetties for the various small craft that shuttled to and from the naval HQ to ships anchored in the harbour, or to the boatyards opposite. I had a use for them in the books.
The Keilline continues for another kilometre toward the Innerhafen and Die Horn, the last part of Keil Hafen, right in the centre of the city. Reaching the end of the waterfront promenade, I looked over at the Arsenal Mole, where German naval ships replenish their munitions and supplies to this day, and to the still working Howaldtswerke shipyard next door. The other large shipyard, Krupps, has gone, replaced by a cruise ship terminal; Kiel is a popular destination for the multitude of large cruise ships which ply the Baltic sea.
Little remains of the Kiel of the 1930s on the east shore of Kiel Hafen – the shipyards, and the adjoining districts of Gaarden, Wellingdorf and Dietrichsdorf were largely destroyed by 1945.
After a pause, I continued on to the Fischhalle, the iconic fish market building which miraculously survived, and is now a maritime museum. I’d arranged to meet another historian there, a curator of the museum and an academic at Kiel university.
I was a little early, so I took a look around the museum, and, never one to miss the chance to get afloat, I spent a fascinating half hour aboard the preserved 1902 steam buoy-laying vessel, the Dampfschiff Bussard. Fascinating, and free!
Julian Freche, the historian and archivist I’d arranged to meet, was younger than I’d expected, and he gave me a valuable hour of his time, answering questions that were frustrating me in my online research, especially from a maritime perspective. His knowledge and enthusiasm to keep alive the memories of the terrible things that had happened in the city were encouraging, especially when he told me of the lengths the German educational system goes to in making sure the National Socialist’s actions would never be forgotten.
I had a couple more places I wanted to see before dark, so I bade Julian goodbye and hurried along the quayside to Kiel Banhof, the main railway station. Completely destroyed in the bombing, it was rebuilt after the war but in a not dissimilar style. I knew that the railway station would have a place in my books, in fact I’d found a photograph of the Kiel Rabbi, Dr. Akiva Posner, his wife Rachel and their three children at the train station in Kiel in 1933, being seen off by the members of his Shul, emigrating to Palestine in the face of the deteriorating situation for Jewish people and other minorities. He’d warned those Jews who elected to stay in Kiel that life under the National Socialists could only get worse; almost half of them left before the door to emigration was slammed closed.
My last visit of the day, and perhaps the most poignant, was to the the Jewish cemetery on Michelsenstraße, which was badly damaged during the bombing of Kiel, but it survived, and is still used by the Jewish community in Kiel which, remarkably, has slowly grown since the end of WW2 and now numbers are much the same as pre-1933 levels at around six hundred. The sign at the entrance said that the cemetery was closed, but the gate was open, and I slipped in through it. I hoped, by writing the story of Kiel’s Jews, I’d be forgiven for the small trespass. As I walked slowly around the older part of the small cemetery, tucked away between apartment blocks, I scanned the names, making mental notes of them; I’d use a mishmash of these in the trilogy. I let myself out, closing the gate behind me.
My route had brought me back to where I had started. As I walked along Lange Reihe and climbed the stairs to the room I’d rented, I could feel the fatigue in my legs, and my feet were sore – it had been a 16 kilometre walk, and anyone who knows me will testify that I’m not a big fan of this form of ambulation.
I’d gone some way to getting my head round Kiel as a city, but unlike Glasgow, the city of my birth, or Edinburgh, there was no hill to stand on where I could view the city as a whole, to get a better idea of its layout, and how it all fitted together. Yes, I had caught glimpses of the old Kiel, and I’d begun to have a gut feeling about how the story would fit into the city, but I wanted to see the bigger picture and, in the absence of a high vantage point, I know there was only one other way.
I had to see Kiel from the water.
More detailed maps can be found on the website and you can download my route on Google Maps. Part two, exploring the east shore of Kiel Hafen and the surrounding Districts of Holtenau and Hassee, will be in the next post.
To read Getrud Wronker’s biography, download the PDF copy and paste it into Google or DeepL translate.