The letter arrives on the twenty-eighth of May, four days before my sixteenth birthday.
It is lying on our doormat among some early cards in their garish envelopes of pink and green, but this one is a plain cream colour with an unfamiliar name and our address typed onto it in neat black letters. On the back of the envelope is a box containing the name and address of the Red Cross in Bad Arolsen. There is a stamp, so I hold the letter up to the light streaming through the glass of our porch and stare at it more closely. Strangely it is stuck over another which looks far less familiar. I just have time to make out the letter P and the image of a strange man in a wig, before a hand comes from behind me and whips the letter out of my fingers so fast that I am left with a paper cut.
“I’ll take that, thank you,” says Mama. “It’s not for your eyes.”
She looks out of sorts. Usually Mama is up two hours earlier than the rest of us and I never see the first post, because she sorts and opens it before we even come down for breakfast. But today she has overslept.
“Why?” I say. “It’s my birthday soon. It’s probably for me.” I say this in the full knowledge that the name on the envelope wasn’t mine.
“It’s not your birthday for another four days, Inge,” she says.
I watch from the hall as she goes into the study, throws the letter into the drawer at the top of her mahogany desk and turns the tiny gold key in the lock. Mama and Papa each have their own desks. She drops the key down the front of her dress.
“There,” she says, patting her bosom. “Not for prying eyes.”
There is no point trying to wrestle it off her. My mother is a substantial woman, built like the typical hausfrau. Even in her flat lace-up shoes she towers a good two centimetres over my father and he is not short. Her face is large and square and tends to look stern, but when she smiles the sternness breaks apart and her eyes fill up with mischief. I guess that’s why my father fell for her.
Papa comes downstairs and kisses me on the cheek as he passes. I give him my broadest smile. Papa is my best friend. He knows me better than anyone, even Mama.
“I will be making you a birthday torte,” Mama is saying. “It contains both coffee and chocolate. Only the best for my Inge.” She’s referring to the chronic shortage of anything good in the shops. It has been like this since the end of the war, almost as long as I can remember. “We’ll have it on your birthday at midday.”
That’s typical of Mama. She runs everything to a schedule in this house.
We live near the centre of Munich in a building full of glass and light and neat angles. I suppose from the outside it looks a lot like a plain box, but inside it is sleek and modern and there’s plenty of space for three people and a cat.
Mama doesn’t like to be caged in, or so she’s always telling us. She likes air and space. I’ve noticed that when she’s in crowds of people on the tram going through central Munich, she sucks her breath in tight and focuses her gaze on some point outside the window, as if the people packed in around her are invisible, or maybe as if she is – I can never tell which.
Mama chose the house five years ago. Papa just went along with it, as he often does. Mama took one look at the sparse white walls and smooth wooden floorboards and her face broke into that smile.
Papa is just the opposite. He likes to be part of a crowd and is often to be found propping up the bar at The Jugged Hare in Munich’s old quarter, regaling anybody who’ll listen with stories about the war. Life in Munich has become more relaxed since the military occupation by America and England finally ended last year. Although there is still not much in the way of luxury food, Mama can buy her beloved strong coffee beans from her favourite shop in town. She is very fussy about coffee. It has to be expensive, hot, black and strong. Anything else sends her into a bad temper.
My mother once told me that before the war she had wanted to become a concert pianist. We have a Bechstein concert piano in our living room. But then everything changed and, like so many German housewives, she found herself doing war work and sending parcels out to our soldiers and allowing refugees to shelter in the house.
I don’t remember any of this, of course. I wasn’t even five years old when the war finished. I know that Papa fought as a soldier and had to retrain to be an accountant once it was over, but that’s about all I know.
It is eleven years since the war ended. I reckon that most Germans now view Hitler’s rule of our country as a disaster, because of the ruined buildings and unemployment levels which haunt the cities. But I still hear people expressing anti-Semitic views from time to time and my father even has a painting of Herr Hitler hanging above his writing desk, which sits opposite Mama’s. It’s a small portrait of the Führer with his arms crossed, unsmiling.
My mother never mentions the painting. She rarely disturbs my father in his study, but I notice that once a week she flicks a duster over the faded gilt which runs around the edge of that portrait. Sometimes I run my finger over the ornate lumps and bumps of the frame. But Papa frowns when he sees me touching it.
“Leave that alone, Inge,” he says. “Show some respect.”
“Why?” I say. “Why should I respect him?”
Papa removes his glasses and rubs at his eyes.
“I meant, show some respect for my belongings,” he says. “Anyway. The war is over now. No need to talk about it at home.”
It’s this sort of thing that makes me feel as if there is a large barrier between me and my parents, even though I’m so close to Papa in other ways. From what I’ve learned at school, the war was filthy and bloody and harsh. Although Papa still occasionally seems proud of his role in it, Mama’s eyes are full of a sort of remote untouchable pain, which I guess confirms the fact that ordinary people suffered more than anybody else. The streets of Munich are still peppered with bullet holes and lined with the jagged ruins of bombed-out buildings. Many men of Papa’s age, who otherwise would just resemble workers in grey suits, are given away by a telltale limp or a half-closed eyelid. But I am lucky. Despite the lingering signs of the war, my life, at least, is easy.
Our family routine ticks on.
Papa eats breakfast with me every morning and then kisses the top of my head before departing for his office.
Mama takes care of the house and seeks out bargains at the market to try and make the evening meals more interesting.
I go to my school and get a thrill in my stomach every time I lay eyes upon my sweet, gentle boyfriend, Wilf.
My life would be pretty much perfect if it wasn’t for one thing.
I’m afraid to go to sleep at night.
You have 0 of these in your Basket.
My name is Inge. I am sixteen. I live in Munich. Food is rationed, though the war ended years ago. My boyfriend is Jewish. My parents would not approve, so I hide this from them. I think they are hiding something from me, too. Letters arrive on my birthday, but they are not addressed to me. They are for a girl named Kasia. This is her story.
“Powerful and harrowing”
Mail on Sunday
“A haunting beauty of a novel.”
The Irish Times
Vanessa Curtis is the award-winning author of contemporary YA novels including Zelah Green (winner of Manchester Children’s Book Award/shortlisted for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize) and The Haunting of Tabitha Grey. The Earth is Singing is her first historical novel, which Vanessa was inspired to write when she discovered her own Jewish Latvian heritage.
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Read the following reviews or write one of your own.
“Learn history through fiction”
We learn more about the Holocaust with each book, even if it is a fiction one. The story is presented from Inges perspective, her story, her emotions are pored out on each page. The story is not at all predictable, it keeps you guessing till the end. The book is a great combination of history and fiction.
“A future classic.”
Gazette & Herald
“This book just blew me away when I finished reading it.”
The Strawberry Post
Go to Usborne Quicklinks for links to websites where you can find out more about the background for this book, which is based on events that took place in Nazi Germany, and Jewish persecution and life in Germany at that time.