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'For a long time, history has mainly been presented from a male perspective.'

Her debut novel became an instant bestseller in Spain. The last gift from Paulina Hoffmann by Carmen Romero Dorr is a novel based partly on her own family history about Paulina, who emigrates from Germany to Spain as a young girl because of World War II. 'About her past, her experiences during the war, my grandmother never wanted to talk.'

A fine family epic, that is The last gift from Paulina Hoffmann, the debut novel by Spanish writer Carmen Romero Dorr (38). The book tells the story of Paulina, who is born in Germany and experiences World War II as a child. After Paulina's father and two brothers are killed and her best - Jewish - friend disappears, her mother Julia takes Paulina to safety with relatives in Spain. Paulina becomes pregnant young, loses her husband after only a few years and is left in poverty with two small children. Until she later inherits a large fortune from an unexpected source.

Alicia, Paulina's granddaughter, knows little about her grandmother's troubled past. It is therefore a big surprise when she inherits a flat in Berlin after her grandmother's death, as no one knew that Paulina owned a house there. In Germany, Alicia is confronted not only with her grandmother's past, but also with her own.

Second mother

What kind of bond did you have with your grandmother yourself?

'My grandmother has been very important to me. When my mother died, I was 10 and, as for Alicia, she was like a second mother to me. As a teenager, I lived with her for five years because my father felt it was important for me to have a female role model in my life when I became a woman myself. We had a lot of fun. We watched films and my grandmother instilled in me a love of literature; she advised me on what to read, such as The three musketeers and The Count of Monte-Cristo By Alexandre Dumas. It was a special period in my life. But even when I was an adult, we still saw each other every week.'

Is the novel based on her history?

'My novel is largely fiction, my grandmother was not like Paulina. But her eventful life did form the source. My grandmother was German and grew up in Berlin. Her father died at the front during World War II. In 1945, her family managed to flee to Spain. She arrived with her mother and two younger brothers in Madrid, where they have always lived. So, like Paulina, my grandmother grew up in Nazi Germany and lived in Spain for 30 years during Franco's dictatorship.'

Inspiration

'When she arrived in Spain in 1945, it was a very conservative, Catholic and poor country. This was particularly difficult for young women, as they were expected to be purely a loving wife and mother. My grandmother married and had four children. She never wanted to talk about her past, her experiences during the war. I asked no questions; I respected her silence. When she died five years ago, I suddenly felt a great inspiration. The story I had been searching for for some time was already there, I just hadn't realised it before.'

But you didn't have many stories from or about herself, then?

'No, and my aunts knew virtually nothing about their mother's childhood either. While writing, I did sometimes wish my grandmother had told me more about her younger years. At the same time, her silence, which I found so mysterious as a teenager, helped me tell this story in a literary way. Because precisely because I knew little about our family history, I felt free to create a fictional plot and use my imagination.'

Did you have to do a lot of research for it?

'Yes, before I started writing, I spent months doing historical research: reading books, letters from German soldiers at the front, et cetera. In Berlin, I walked through the Prenzlauer Berg district to soak up the atmosphere. A good friend of mine, a historian, helped me with the most difficult parts of the research. I was particularly interested in events that are not so well known, such as the so-called 'Kindertransport', where just before the war really started, ten thousand Jewish children were helped to flee from Germany to England, or the huge number of rapes of German women after the battle of Berlin in 1945.'

Perspective

'History has long been told mainly from the male perspective. Instead, I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the women and children who stayed behind at home while their husbands, sons and brothers were sent to the front. What did they experience, how did they cope? Much less is known about that. This has also been picked up in reviews, and by readers: I have received as many as three hundred e-mails from readers. I am very happy about that.'

Loss and grief are a major theme. How does loss shape a person?

'Unlike her mother Julia, who completely succumbs to her loss, Paulina is a strong woman who is able to carry on even if she is broken. Like Alicia, I lost my mother at a young age. My grandmother showed me - and I incorporated this into my novel - that you can enjoy life and be happy despite difficulties and loss of loved ones. She taught me to be strong. Because although mourning and loss are very painful and drastic, they also make you stronger as a person.'

Another important theme is the influence of the past. Can we ever break free from our history?

'I don't think we can really escape the past, no; we have to face what we experience and learn to cope with it. That is never easy, especially if that background is painful or sad. Everyone has to find their own way to do that. Mine is to write about it. It helped me to grieve for my grandmother. I think I know her better now than when she was alive.'

Demanding

In everyday life, you work at a publishing house. What was it like to be on the 'other side' for the first time now?

'I am indeed an editor at a major publishing house, publishing novels by Spanish authors. That is a completely different position from the one I had now as a writer. When I started this novel, I was not at all concerned with all the skills and literary knowledge I gained from working with other writers. It was just me and my story, nothing else. I had a very clear picture of the novel when I started, so that helped. The biggest challenge was making it a gripping story and describing Paulina and Alicia's feelings so lifelike that the reader could sympathise and put themselves in their shoes. Because of my work as an editor, I was naturally aware of how difficult it is to write a good book. I guess that made me extra demanding of myself, ha ha.'

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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