About the Book
Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max – whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.
But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realised; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?
Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.
About Monika Jephcott Thomas
Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, north-west Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner Jeff she established the Academy of Play & Child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty per cent of children who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002.
Max looked at the revolver in his hand. It was the first time he had taken it from its holster since that terrifying train journey through Romania close to the Southern Front. Yet this time he felt he was actually going to have to pull the trigger. The question was, would he be aiming at the Russians surrounding the city or at himself.
The gun was a Walther P38, not dissimilar to his father’s Luger P08, but a cheaper version massed produced for the German army now that the financial cost of war was spiralling out of control. Max turned the gun over in his hands, juggling it with thoughts of his father putting that Luger to his own forearm when Max was just a boy and pulling the trigger. Papa had shattered just about every bone in his wrist, but it was the only way he could make sure he did not have to serve in the German army in the Great War.
‘There was nothing great about it,’ Papa had grumbled the day Max had announced his intention to join up. But his father had reluctantly chewed up his bitterness for the Nazis and his fears for his son and swallowed them with a mouthful of recently rationed hard bread and tinned pork. He had to admire his son for forging a career for himself as a doctor. ‘What would this country do without people like him?’ he whispered to his wife as they both stared at the ceiling that night in bed, wide-eyed in the gloom with parental concern. ‘Our people will be broken soon, just like they were before, and it will be his job to try and put them back together again, God help him!’
Max had wanted to be a doctor since he was sixteen. He had known he had to be a doctor since he was sixteen. Since the time Aunty Bertel had taken him to the theatre. Then, he was so engrossed in the play before him (on the edge of his seat as Polly Peachum cried for her lover and Macheath was about to be hung on the gallows; the ominous music from the orchestra seemingly emanating from his own swelling chest) that Max thought the mighty crash, which rocked the floor beneath him, was the result of a wonderful choreography between pyrotechnical effects, timpani and cymbals. But as the screams from the street dominoed through the audience and even reached the actors, Max realised this was not part of the show. Some of the audience were frozen to their seats, fearful of what the screams outside portended. Others, who Max could only assume were not as enamoured with The Threepenny Opera as he was, hurried their friends and partners into the street with a strange excitement on their faces for the greater spectacle which awaited them outside the theatre.
‘There’s been an accident. A terrible accident. A tram. A lorry…’ one disembodied screech reached Max and his aunt from over the heads of the stampeding theatre-goers.
‘Tante,’ Max could not control the quivering in his voice. ‘What should we do?’
‘Let’s go!’ Bertel declared in a tone of such confidence she might well have been trying to compensate for her nephew’s obvious lack of it. ‘We need to help!’
Max followed Bertel into a street strewn with beer and bodies. For a second, he told himself that there had been a riotous party and everyone had collapsed on the ground from too much drinking. But the blood and dismemberment told another story; one which he could not deny when he saw the double decker tram torn apart as if it was made of paper and the lorry from the Kronen brewery on its side, its contents soaking the road with a boozy stench.
Bertel grabbed Max by the sleeve and, with an intrepidity which he could only marvel at, she marched through the chaos towards the cigar shop opposite the theatre, where a ladder leant against the awning.
‘Help me carry this!’ she ordered Max. ‘We are going to use it as a stretcher. We’re going to lay each casualty on it in turn and carry them to the hospital, understand?’
Max nodded his head furiously. From the moment Bertel had opened her mouth he was hanging on her every word, determined not to let her down, determined to infect himself with her courage.
The hospital was only two hundred metres away. Yet after hauling four casualties there and watching Bertel’s stern but comforting way of telling each that they would be OK, despite their screams and horrific injuries, Max felt weaker and more useless than ever.
‘I should have been able to do more,’ he told himself when he finally got home and hid in the lavatory, trying to get the sound of that screaming to quieten down; desperate for a sense of solitude after all the crowds, the bumping of elbows, the tripping over bodies. ‘I will never be so useless again.’
So Dr Max Portner weighed the pistol in his palms, red and cracked from the late winter frosts. He noted the secret code 480 on the slide, which had replaced the old Walther Arms banner decorating previous models for fear the Allies could identify weapon production sites from such markings and bomb them. But that was the least of his fears and those of his fellow Germans right now in Breslau, the city surrounded as it was by the Sixth Army of the First Ukrainian Front. The city had been under siege now for over seventy days. Max had tended to so many wounded and dying soldiers in that time he knew there couldn’t be many left to protect the great military fortress Hitler had decreed the city to become against the advancing Russians.
A plane roared overhead. Max shoved his pistol back into its holster and threw himself instinctively into one of the bomb craters in the garden which they had begun using as latrines. The last thing on his mind was the gallons of other people’s shit he was now crouched trembling in. When the bombs didn’t come he dared to look up and, since the plane was so low, he managed to identify one of his own, a Luftwaffe aircraft dropping another load of supplies. These air drops used to bring him a sense of hope, but the city was on its knees now and he doubted they would survive until tomorrow. Doubted they should survive if all he’d heard about the POW camps was true.
‘Erika,’ he whispered to himself, craning his neck up to track the plane, ‘If only…’
His unarticulated wish stuck in his extended throat as his eyes took in the sight of the plane exploding – a direct hit from one of the Russian anti-aircraft guns positioned around the city. His heart sank to its lowest point yet, but his eyes found strange solace in the bizarre beauty of the billowing clouds of smoke and flame, sending now useless pieces of medical equipment and food hurtling to the earth. Some of it even reached the garden where he was rooted in the ground agog.
And then it began to snow.
As if nature was attempting to cool down the infernal destruction and pacify the angry explosion marring its skies. The flakes were big, some too big to be snow Max gradually realised as he blinked at the smaller ones adorning his lashes. He held out his hand to catch one of the false flakes. It was part of a letter. Pages and pages, some quite intact began to flutter down into the garden. He clambered out of the cess pit and began, as instinctively as he had protected himself from the bombs by diving into a stinking toilet, to gather up the mail which the plane had also been trying to deliver along with supplies. Letters from loved ones to their men on the front. His fists were soon full of the treasure, the only thing salvageable from this final nail in the coffin of Breslau. Somewhere in the frosted corners of his mind he wished there was a letter from Erika among them and yet, like a player in one of Hitler’s fundraising lotteries, he never believed for a minute that he held the winning ticket.