The Plum Tree

Ellen Marie Wiseman

By – December 3, 2012

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.

The Plum Tree in Photos

by Ellen Marie Wiseman

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.

These sto­ries and more were the inspi­ra­tion behind The Plum Tree. But by invent­ing the love sto­ry between Chris­tine and Isaac, I was able to tell them all. Imag­ine my sur­prise when, after I named my main char­ac­ter Chris­tine, my moth­er told me that my great-par­ents’ names were Chris­tine and Chris­t­ian. I guess it was meant to be!

My mater­nal great-grand­par­ents, Chris­tine and Chris­t­ian. These pho­tos are from their, Ausweise, or iden­ti­ty booklets.

Discussion Questions

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?