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‘My parents ensured I survived’

In a gothic novel he would have had a mad wife locked up behind one of those oriole windows, and a psychotic housekeeper planning to set the manor house ablaze, but as I discovered when Philip de Carteret invited me inside my hospitable host had a charming wife and an illustrious lineage he traced back to William the Conqueror. I left his home fascinated by the island’s history.Eager to learn more about the past, I headed for the Occupation Museum. In the long tunnel that led to the entrance the sound of picks and hammers striking bare rock resounded eerily in the darkness. I heard glasses clinking and German voices singing ‘Lili Marlene’ and saw army jackets draped over the backs of chairs but the room was empty, as if the soldiers had just stepped out and would soon return. The sound effects created a frightening atmosphere. Inside the museum I was astonished to learn that this tiny island between England and France, and its even smaller Channel Island neighbours, were the only parts of the UK occupied by Germany during the war. As I wandered among the exhibits of life here during the Occupation, I saw evidence of heroism and betrayal, of oppression and collusion. Some people had denounced their neighbours for keeping forbidden radios while others risked their lives to save strangers. When I read a German notice that invited local girls to a dance, I realised that the close proximity of occupiers and locals had affected every aspect of life, and all relationships. I think that was the moment when the spark was lit. The way that war transforms ordinary lives and creates dilemmas that test moral character has been a theme I’ve explored in most of my books. I’ve experienced this first-hand. I’m a child Holocaust survivor and it was the extraordinary strength my parents displayed during the German occupation of Poland that ensured I survived when over a million Jewish children did not. Today, as I watch Ukrainian refugees escaping from Lviv on my TV screen, I have a sense of deja vu. Like them, we also fled from Lviv, which in 1942 was part of Poland. And like them we were forced to live among strangers. For three years we lived in terror as neighbours threatened to denounce us to the Gestapo, and only the friendship of the village priest saved us. So it’s not surprising that I am fascinated by the way that war brings out the best and the worst in people.Although I was excited by the idea of writing a novel set in Jersey during the war, I didn’t begin writing it until after my second visit. I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered that Bob le Sueur, my guide around the island, had not only lived there throughout the Occupation, but had helped to set up a network to rescue escaped slave labourers brought there by the Germans to erect fortifications and excavate tunnels. Bob, a dapper ninety-year-old who drove a sports car, was a mine of information, and his exploits during the war transported me into the past. As I listened to him, history came alive. My imagination went into overdrive as I visualised the main characters of my novel, all of whom were forced to make life-changing decisions: Hugh Jackson, the devoted doctor who chose to stay behind to look after his patients when others were evacuating, and Tom, the rebellious teenager who formed an audacious escape plan because he was ashamed of his parents who fraternised with the enemy. Many years later, Xanthe, a young Australian intern, travels to Jersey to escape the toxic culture of her hospital and becomes connected to the island’s past in a way she could never have imagined. Even before I’d written a single word, I already had the title. It came to me when I recalled the Germans’ invitation to their social evenings. Like so many locals trying to find a way to coexist with their occupiers, these girls had danced with the enemy. Dancing with the Enemy by Diane Armstrong, published by HQ, is out now. Share your thoughts about this topic and more at the Sunday Book Club group on Facebook. And remember our new Book of the Month is Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule. Get it for 30 per cent off the $32.99 RRP at Booktopia, by using the code RULE at checkout.

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