What I Don’t Know

Guest Post by Elizabeth Wein

Sometimes when I’m visiting a school and talking about my books, I challenge the students, “How much do you really know about World War II?”

It’s not meant to humiliate anyone – quite the opposite. I’m the first to admit, and I like to point out to others, that the events of 1939-1945 were so globally diverse, so complex, and affected so many people, that it’s impossible for anyone to contain the whole story inside a single human head.

White Eagles is a short novel for young adults based loosely on the true story of Anna Leska, a Polish pilot who fled the German invasion of Poland in 1939. When her airfield was taken over by the enemy, she stole a plane and escaped in it. She made her way to France, like many others in the Polish Air Force and army, and after the invasion of France, to Britain. The Poles called Britain the “Island of Last Hope” – after France fell, it was the last free gathering place for the forces of the Allied European nations who joined together to fight off the devastation wrought by the xenophobic nationalism of fascism.

As I set out to write White Eagles I didn’t know much about Anna Leska, apart from her desperate flight to freedom, and the fact that eventually she made it to England and was able to join the Air Transport Auxiliary as a ferry pilot for the Royal Air Force. I loved the image of this brave young woman flying in twilight before dawn and after dusk, to avoid being spotted by the Luftwaffe, and hiding her small plane on the edge of woodland by day. I thought it would be straightforward to craft a story around this daring escape.

I was wrong. It turned out I knew hardly anything about the invasion of Poland. I knew it had happened, of course; but I didn’t know how the Polish military and civilians had reacted, or how long it had taken the German army to subdue them, or when the Soviet Union’s Red Army joined in the fight and how that changed things.

And that was just the beginning of what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what kind of planes my fictional heroine, Kristina, would be able to fly, where her airbase might be when it came under attack, or where she would escape to when she ran out of fuel after a few hours in the air. I didn’t know what kind of food Kristina could expect to eat on the way to her new home, or what kind of currency she’d have with her. I didn’t know anything about the map of Eastern Europe in 1939. I knew national boundaries were different to what they are today – but I hadn’t thought about how they were also different to what they were in 1935, and 1940, and 1945! One of the Polish cities that Kristina visits on her journey literally doesn’t exist anymore! It has a different name and is in a different country now.

I was up against a tight deadline as I wrote White Eagles, so Kristina’s journey across Europe in September 1939 was a bit of a virtual adventure for me, as I learned all kinds of things about European history and culture that I’d never been aware of. The one that really stood out was the Hungarian and Romanian reaction to the wave of Polish refugees that came pouring over their borders as the Polish military, and civilians too, fled the onslaught of the German and Soviet invasion. The governments of neutral Romania and of Hungary, which had not yet joined the Axis powers, organized a series of refugee camps for the fleeing Poles. Beginning in the early autumn of 1939, they provided temporary shelter for nearly 200,000 displaced people.

I spend a lot of time with my head in the past, but this looked remarkably like the present.

Every time I write another book about World War II, I learn new things. I also see more and more parallels with the world we live in today. I hope that today’s young readers find these parallels as poignant and fascinating as I do.

Those readers will be our memory bearers as we take yesterday’s lessons into the future. I will never know everything there is to know about World War II; but I’m sure of that.

Dyslexia Awareness Week is 7-13th October 2019 and Barrington Stoke are publishers of Dyslexia Friendly titles including White Eagles by Elizabeth Wein.

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