Although landlords are not always loved, mine not only gave me a roof over my head but also my career as a writer. For they told me the stories that inspired both my new novel, The Deceptions, and my first, Border Street.
I was just out of university when I moved from inner city Sydney across to the beachside suburb of Tamarama. The rental property was newly advertised and not expensive. There was one catch: it was a duplex and my boyfriend and I would be sharing with the landlords. It was a small price for the location, I thought, and, competitive by nature, I was determined to beat the other would-be tenants milling around. And I did. I secured the property and for six years, we lived next door to our landlords, Fred and Eva Perger, who were Czech and Jewish and Holocaust survivors.
Fred and I became close, close enough for him to tell me his wartime story, a story that had taken him from the Theresienstadt ghetto outside Prague to Auschwitz and Dachau. In giving me this story, he revealed more to me that he had even to his own family. Perhaps it was less painful to tell a trusted outsider.
And so, for over a year, I spoke to Fred about his life, particularly about his life during the Second World War. These interviews, which I later transcribed, would provide the foundations for my first novel, Border Street.
Among the many stories Fred told me was one that never left me; one that, many years later, after Fred and Eva had both died, would provide the inspiration for my new novel, The Deceptions. It was a story that both fascinated and perturbed me.
This was the story Fred told me.
As teenagers, both he and Eva – together with their families – had been sent to the ghetto of Theresienstadt. The ghetto was overcrowded and there was poor sanitation and inadequate food. Furthermore, the spectre of transportation hovered over the inmates: the SS would determine the number of detainees to be taken, then ask the Jewish Council of Elders within the ghetto to decide who should be chosen. Eva and Fred were more fortunate than many because for they believed themselves protected from transportation. This was because Eva’s father, Dr Franz Fischer, was a doctor whose skills were of great demand in the ghetto. For this reason, he and his family – including Fred – had been promised protection.
The ghetto was guarded by Czech gendarmes who were part police, part military. When one such gendarme broke his arm, Dr Fischer set it for him. To thank him, the gendarme offered to smuggle correspondence out of the ghetto for Dr Fischer and his family. It was an excellent arrangement that might have lasted indefinitely, had the gendarme not been accused of Rassenschande – or race shame – for his illicit relationship with one of the Jewish detainees. The gendarme and the Jewish woman said to be his lover were both arrested. The gendarme’s notebook was also confiscated, in which he had recorded Dr Fischer’s name and details. Soon afterwards, Dr Fischer was taken to the nearby political prison and Fred and Eva were both transported to Auschwitz.
Dr Fischer never returned home. Fred and Eva both survived the war, as did the gendarme. But of the woman who’d been arrested with the gendarme, Fred knew nothing. He’d never even known her name.
This unknown woman haunted me. Who was she? What was the nature of her relationship with the gendarme? And what had been her fate? I needed to know more. But how? I had next to no information and because Fred and Eva were no longer alive, I was on my own. Or so I thought.
Since their parents’ death, I had kept up a friendship with Fred and Eva’s daughters, Helena and Renata, and I told them my problem: I wanted to write the gendarme’s story but I knew nothing about Czech gendarmes and there had been little written about them.
Helena had an idea. She had many non-Jewish Czech friends living in Australia. She would ask them if they knew anything about the Czech gendarmerie and whether they themselves had relatives who had been gendarmes, particularly during the war. She was met with absolute silence. No-one would say a word. For although Fred had liked the gendarme he had come to know, gendarmes who had worked during the war risked being accused of collaboration. So we drew a blank. Any secrets would continue to be closely held. No-one would be coming forward to help me.
Instead, I turned to books and stories. I immersed myself in the memoirs of women who had been sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto and to the concentration camps and I read the work of Arnošt Lustig, who had been sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto as a teenager and who wrote about the gendarme who, upon discovering contraband in an detainee’s pocket, could have reported him to the SS – but didn’t.
In this way, my characters emerged – the strong, arch, dry Hana Lederová and her beguiled guard, Karel Kruta – as I reimagined the story Fred and Eva had told me. And so The Deceptions took shape: a story of love and betrayal and hope and resilience in the tumult of the Second World War. And as our world once again catapults into uncertainty, I hope it is a story that gives heart to its readers.
About the Book:
Long-buried family secrets surface in a compelling new novel from the author of The Teacher’s Secret.
Moving from wartime Europe to modern day Australia, The Deceptions is a powerful story of old transgressions, unexpected revelations and the legacy of lives built on lies and deceit.
Prague, 1943. Taken from her home in Prague, Hana Lederova finds herself imprisoned in the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt, where she is forced to endure appalling deprivation and the imminent threat of transportation to the east. When she attracts the attention of the Czech gendarme who becomes her guard, Hana reluctantly accepts his advances, hoping for the protection she so desperately needs.
Sydney, 2010. Manipulated into a liaison with her married boss, Tessa knows she needs to end it, but how? Tessa’s grandmother, Irena, also has something to hide. Harkening back to the Second World War, hers is a carefully kept secret that, if revealed, would send shockwaves well beyond her own fractured family.
Inspired by a true story of wartime betrayal, The Deceptions is a searing, compassionate tale of love and duplicity-and family secrets better left buried.
Read my review of The Deceptions here.
Published by Allen & Unwin
Released 31st March 2020
About the Author:
SUZANNE LEAL is the author of The Deceptions, The Teacher’s Secret and Border Street. A regular presenter at literary events and festivals, she was the senior judge for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards from 2017 to 2019 and is a board director of Sydney Crime Writers Festival. A lawyer experienced in child protection, criminal law and refugee law, Suzanne is a senior member of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal and former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.