One of the most popular tourist attractions for visitors to the beautiful island of Jersey, to the south of England, is the Occupation Tapestry; 12 colourful and detailed panels which eloquently tell the story of the German occupation of the island, and eventual liberation between 1940-45. Each intricate stitch is testament to the extraordinary resilience of the islanders.
Author Jenny Lecoat was born in Jersey and grew up there. The families of both her parents were active in the resistance movement against German occupation.So it is probably unsurprising that her novel The Viennese Girl, released today and based on real events and characters, should be set in that turbulent period.
It tells the story of Hedy Bercu, a young Jewish girl who escaped Vienna following the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany, successfully fleeing to Jersey. There, Hedy deliberately hides details of her race, fearful that Jersey population will be hostile, seeing her as German.
Then in June 1940 the Germans suddenly bomb Jersey and the Wehrmacht take over the island, the only time Germany invaded British soil. Immediately they impose increasingly harsh controls over all aspects of life. And when the Chief Aliens Officer of Jersey turns down Hedy’s pleas to not inform the Germans that she is a Jew, she realises the past she thought she had escaped, has come back to haunt her. She is alone, accepted by neither side.
The list of occupations that she, as a Jew, is barred from, is so extensive she see her life begin to crumble, unable to find proper shelter, eat properly or keep herself warm. Ironically it is the Germans who eventually offer her work, as a translator. Although living in a no-mans land, not fitting in to either element of society, she secretly persists in carrying out small acts of defiance. And finds unexpected and tentative love with a young German Officer, who had stepped in protect her, saving her from almost certain deportation to the death camps. For a short while they are able to snatch moments together and Hedy begins to believe in the possibility of a future. Until it all starts to go wrong.
As the net closes in on Hedy, she is rescued by her friend, the larger-than-life local, Dorothea Le Brocq. United by the fact that both of them are in love with Germans, Dorothea decides that Hedy must “disappear”. After Dorothea’s German husband, who had helped get them food, was called up by the German Army and sent to fight in Russia, the two women survived on Dorothea’s meagre rations, fishing, and what food her fiance can provide them without alerting the authorities.
By eloquently focusing on one, very intimate story of survival, Lecoat reveals the everyday actions of extraordinary heroism and humanity that were taking place in communities like Jersey, every day, in stark comparison to the chilling self-interest, hatred and viciousness that dominated.
Lecoat is a successful comedian, actress and latterly, a screenwriter. The Viennese Girl, published by Allen and Unwin, is her first novel.
In 2016, Dorothea Weber (nee Le Brocq) was posthumously awarded the Righteous Amongst Nations honour on the Yad Vashem by the Israel for showing “extraordinary courage.”
Click here to hear Jenny Lecoat talking about how she came to write The Viennese Girl.