Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Call it the Ravensbruck dilemma.

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.


So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.


Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.



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