This author’s note appears in the back of The Girl with the Red Balloon. I am posting it here for readers who may prefer to read it prior to reading the book or for easy sourcing.
One of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle, said in her Margaret Edwards Award acceptance speech, “Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth.” This line has guided most of my writing and became my touchstone while writing The Girl with the Red Balloon.
To my knowledge, no one escaped death camps or ghettos with magical red balloons. No one escaped over the Berlin Wall with magical red balloons. But people did escape from both concentration camps and death camps, from East Germany and from other places of war and oppression. And they did not do this alone. People in places of war and oppression and terrible crimes face choices, and many ordinary people have made the extraordinary choice to save lives even at the cost of their own. As Kai says in the book, “People never mentioned in history books still made history.”
So what is historically accurate in the book?
The Łódź ghetto was real. Approximately 204,000 Jewish people passed through its gates. About 800 remained in the ghetto when the Soviets liberated it on January 19, 1945, and approximately 10,000 Łódź residents survived the Holocaust after being deported to camps, including Auschwitz. Few people escaped Chełmno, but one of the people I read about was an unnamed eighteen-year-old boy. Łódź also housed more than 5,000 Romani people, almost all of whom were killed at Chełmno and Auschwitz.
The Romanichal, Kai’s people in England, are very much real. And the Roma of continental Europe who died during the Holocaust, somewhere between 500,000 and 1,500,000, were real, as are the Roma who reside there now. Throughout history, Roma have suffered horrifically at the hands of people in power and they remain some of the most persecuted people in Europe. Benno uses the word “Gypsy” for the Roma as that was the only word then, but as Kai tells Ellie, the proper word for non-Romani people to use now is Roma or Romani.
After the immediate aftermath of World War II, Germany was carved into pieces for the Allied forces to control. The Soviet Union gained control of East Germany. As the world quickly moved into an arms race and the Cold War, East Germany became the demarcation on a map, and the Berlin Wall was more than just a way to keep people in East Berlin. It was a symbol. People tried to escape East Berlin into the West in a variety of creative ways, including hot-air balloon, hand-dug tunnels, train tracks in the ghost stations, hanging on beneath cars, hiding in trunks. Some of these were successful, and many were not. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, became the symbolic end of the Cold War.
The world is not as black and white as I saw it when I first dreamed up a girl going over the Berlin Wall with a red balloon.
I don’t have any answers. All the answers I found in the writing of this book led me to more questions. And I’m starting to think that the answering isn’t nearly as important as the asking.
Be a sponge.