The Plum Tree
Ellen Marie Wiseman takes facts from her family’s background and weaves them into fiction in this beautifully written first novel, which is told from the perspective of a non-Jewish German woman living through the deprivations of war and the rising fear of the Nazis.
The novel’s vivid descriptions help the reader feel part of the period and the locales. Not every non-Jew in Germany in the 1930s was a Nazis; far from it. The Plum Tree follows a family torn by feelings of patriotism for their country and the growing Nazi terror darkening their doorstep. The book’s heroine, Christine, learns first-hand what life is like in a concentration camp when she is deported to one after being discovered hiding her Jewish boyfriend.
The story continues after the war has ended and the atrocities of the Russian army hit close to home. In addition, problems of identifying Nazi criminals to the American authorities becomes increasingly difficult when the Nazis try to pass themselves off as regular Wehrmacht (Army) soldiers as well as persecuted victims of the Holocaust.
Ellen Marie Wiseman weaves a story of intrigue, terror, and love from a perspective not often seen in Holocaust novels.
When it comes to love during a time of war, there are millions of stories waiting to be told. In my novel, The Plum Tree, a poor, young German woman, Christine Bölz, falls in love with Isaac Bauerman, the son of her wealthy Jewish employer, in Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II.
When I wrote The Plum Tree, I could have focused on any number of family stories as the foundation for my plot. My grandparents’ story sounds straight out of a romantic movie—“Devoted husband and father of three is drafted into the German Army during World War II and sent to the Eastern front, where he is captured and sent to a POW camp. For two years his family has no idea if he is dead or alive, until he shows up on their doorstep one day.”
In the photo taken before my Opa is sent off to fight, my grandparents are smiling as they pose with my mother and uncles. I often wonder what was going through their minds at the time. Did they worry that this could be the last time they would be together? Did they wonder if the war would come to their small village and threaten their children’s lives?
Oma, Opa, my mother and uncles. This picture was taken before Opa was sent to the Russian front. There was another, nearly identical picture taken without Opa, to send to him while he was off fighting.
During the four years Opa was gone, Oma repaired damaged military uniforms to bring in a small income. She stood in ration lines for hours on end, made sugar out sugar beets, and bartered beechnuts for cooking oil. She cooked on a woodstove, made clothes out of cotton sheets, raised chickens and grew vegetables to keep her children fed. Under the cover of night, she put food out for passing Jewish prisoners and listened to illegal foreign radio broadcasts—both crimes punishable by death. She put blackout paper over the house windows so the enemy wouldn’t see their light and, night after night when the air raid sirens went off, ran down the street to hide with her terrified children inside a bomb shelter.
I could have based the story on my maternal great-grandparents, who survived World War I only to have my great-grandfather killed in World War II while trying to save the family home during an air raid. A burning wall from a neighboring barn fell on top of him, and my great-grandmother was severely burned trying to save him.
Luckily, my mother’s childhood home suffered only minor damage during the frequent air raids. After the war, it was taken over by American soldiers for a few weeks. This half-timbered three-story house is still in the family.
I could have based the book on my mother, who, after reading American magazines left behind by occupying Allied soldiers, took a ship to America alone, at the age of twenty-one, to marry an American soldier she barely knew.
In this school picture, taken eight years before she left for America, my mother is wearing a sweater knitted by her Oma, from wool she spun herself. In Germany during that time, parents had to pay for their children to go to school after eighth grade. My mother and her classmates were often pulled from class to gather a late harvest or pick potato bugs from farmers’ fields.
My maternal great-grandparents, Christine and Christian. These photos are from their, Ausweise, or identity booklets.
1. Christine and her family were not members of the Nazi party. When the war started in 1939, the population of Germany was over 80 million, with 5.3 million being members of the Nazi Party. The party reached its peak in 1945 with 8 million members. Many of these were nominal members who joined for careerist reasons, but the party had an active membership of at least a million, including virtually all the holders of senior positions in the national government. Not all Germans or all military were party members. Does this surprise you? Did you think all Germans were members of the Nazi party? What do you think most people believe? Why?
2. Christine works as a domestic for a Jewish family where she falls in love with Isaac. What brings them together? What do you think it was like the first time they met? Do you think they fell in love instantly or over time? How do you think Isaac felt about her family, knowing how the Nazis felt about Jews? Do you think Christine was envious of his family’s wealth or did she give it little thought?
3. The first anti-Jewish poster Christine sees explains who is a Jew and who isn’t, and forbids Jews of entering public places like banks and post offices. It is said that Hitler drew his first ideas about how to treat the Jews from blacks being denied civil rights in the South. What do you think are the differences? Why was the KKK kept in check while the Nazis were not?
4. Christine offers to hide Isaac before the Nazis take him and his family away. Would you have taken the opportunity to go with her, or would you have stayed with your family? Do you think Isaac’s decision was based on loyalty to his parents and sister, or because he thought they’d be okay since he had no idea how bad it was going to get?
5. The Nazis said they were going to “relocate” the Jews. What if this was happening where you live? How far would you be willing to go to protect your friends and neighbors? Would you risk your life or the lives of your children to save someone else?
6. We live in a world where global news and information is instant. During WWII in Nazi Germany, public information was manipulated and limited. Propaganda was used to sway public opinion. There were only two Nazi-run newspapers available and the Nazis controlled the radio. Listening to foreign broadcasts was a crime punishable by death. After the Nazis were defeated, most Germans found out that Roosevelt had died, that the Wehrmacht had unconditionally surrendered, and that the atom bomb had been dropped on Japan, by word of mouth. How do you think the availability of information affects the way people think and act? Do you think the Holocaust could have been stopped if information had been more readily available? Do you think the war would have ended sooner? What differences would it have made?
7. Lagerkommandant Grüstein is loosely based on a real SS officer, Kurt Gerstein, who tried to tell the world what the Nazis were doing. After the war, Gerstein turned himself over to the French and gave them a detailed account of what happened in the camps. Before his trial, he was found dead. There is some speculation that other imprisoned SS might have killed him. If he’d been given the chance to go to trial, should he have been punished with the rest of the SS or let free?
8. Christine thinks of her mother as key to their survival and the last thread to anything familiar and normal. From food in their stomachs to clean clothes and warm baths, Mutti provided the only bits of comfort to be had. During the war, Germany was made up of women, children, and old people, struggling to survive food shortages and air raids while the men were off fighting. What do you think it was like in Germany for the women left behind? What differences would there have been between single women and those with children to take care of? At one point Christine mentions that some women sell themselves to feed their children. How far would you go to keep yourself and your children alive?
9. How do you think Christine changed over the course of the novel? What about Isaac, Maria, Heinrich, and Karl? Even though siblings are raised together, sometimes they turn out differently. What differences do you see in Christine and Maria? Heinrich and Karl?
10. Christine and the Lagerkommandant talk about what the prisoners will do to stay alive, from spying on each other to pushing their fellow Jews into the ovens to burn. How far would you go to stay alive in a place like that? Do you think you would be strong enough to keep going like Hannah and Christine, or do you think you’d give up?
11. The Americans bombed Christine’s village and shot at her and her little brother. How do you think she felt when they occupied her village? Do you think she saw them as saviors or monsters? Why?
12. When Christine and Isaac are sent to Dachau, she worries that he has lost his will to live. Discuss the will to live. Do you think it’s the same for everyone, or is it stronger in some than others?
13. Discuss the significance of the plum tree. What does it symbolize, both as a pit when it’s first planted and later, as a blossoming sapling at the end of the book?
14. Do you think Christine and Isaac’s secret meetings are romantic or frightening? Do you think fear of the future made their love stronger and more passionate? They didn’t have sex because they were afraid she would become pregnant. Do you think that is realistic or do you think the author used it to add more tension to the story? When Isaac puts an end to their meetings, Christine only tries to see him twice. Would you have agreed to wait and see what happens, or would you have gone to his house more often, Gestapo or no Gestapo?
15. Mutti agrees to put food out for the passing Jewish prisoners even though it’s dangerous and she can barely feed her family. Why do you think she does it? Would you have done the same thing?
16. When the Gestapo finds Isaac in Christine’s attic, they spare the rest of her family out of respect for her father’s military service. Do you think that would have happened or do you think they would have shot her family or taken them all away?
17. After the war, Christine’s friend Kate doesn’t believe her when she tells her about the camps and Stefan’s role as an SS guard. Do you think Kate is in denial because she is in love and wants to get married, or do you think she really doesn’t believe Christine? When Christine tries to expose Stefan in church, again no one wants to believe her. Do you think people were in denial, were too busy with their own problems, or just didn’t want to talk about it? Do you think they felt guilty?
18. When Christine gets off the train from Dachau, she doesn’t realize where she is. How do you think Christine felt when she realized she was already home? How do you think she felt when she saw her house was still standing and her family was alive? How do you think it feels to survive something so horrific when so many others didn’t? She tastes the grass in the goat’s milk and thinks even chicken are beautiful. Do you think almost dying makes a person more aware and grateful for the little things?
19. Maria hates herself because the Russians raped her. She thinks no one will ever love her. When she finds out she is pregnant, she is devastated. Do you think she died by accident trying to get rid of the baby, or do you think she killed herself? What would you have done in her situation?
20. If Christine hadn’t found out Isaac was alive, do you think she would have ended up with Jake? Do you think she would have left her family to go to America? What would their future look like?