Every conversation we have with a prospective client begins with a version of this question: what is your goal for publishing this book? Since indie publishers are spending their own money, you might think that earning back that investment would be the number-one objective, but it isn’t. More often, it’s to share their story. To help other people.
The purpose of this interview with Maria Ritter is to highlight her writing journey—her reasons for writing, and the reactions to her writing. In particular, the focus is on her most recent book, Return to Leipzig.
Dr. Ritter is a retired licensed clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, and a survivor of World War II. In this interview you will learn about how she used writing and storytelling to help her come to terms with her memories. As Maria says in the interview,
“We all have a story that formed our lives. It is important to write and share it with others with the assurance that we are not alone.”
David Wogahn, Question 1
A surprising number of books are published because the author wants to share their story, as opposed to making money. Why was your story so important to share?
Writing is a powerful tool to find words when revisiting memories, especially those with traumatic and vivid painful images that have left permanent emotional scars for life. Healing comes about by revisiting and sharing those past experiences with others, by being listened to with acceptance, compassion, and understanding, and even by having a willingness to face unexpected responses. Writing my story not only shares my personal experiences with others but also documents a horrific time in history not to be forgotten.
When my daughter, Lisa, asked me during a visit to Dresden, Germany, in 1984, “Mom, what happened to you here, why are you crying?” I needed to come to terms with those deep and painful experiences of my childhood years during and after World War II, and break down my own silence. I did it by writing and talking in therapy with a caring witness. A trip to many locations in the former East Germany and Silesia area, such as Dresden, Leipzig, and Breslau, revived vivid memories and stirred more fears and sadness but validated my experiences.
Various experiences, descriptions, and reflections in my writings were primarily intended to document my story for my children and other family members. It also opened a way of sharing my painful past with others and speaking of the deep shame filled with collective guilt for being a child of the Nazis. In spite of that, I also wanted them to know that there were times of surprising care and kindnesses, offering peace with signs of reconciliation by persons on all sides of the firing line. Hate and war can be overcome, and peace does prevail.
This story is something you have shared with others before. What other ways have you shared it? A second part of this question is why publish it in book form?
Maria: Storytelling is an ancient form of passing along cultural treasures and important life lessons with conflicts, laughs, tears, insights and, often, with valuable solutions.
As a young child with few toys around, I listened to and read many stories, especially fairy tales and special holiday books. They filled my heart with colorful images and helped me to know that despite scary conflicts all around us, losses and tears, happy endings are possible. I knew of the bad wolf in Brothers Grimm’s story of Little Red Cap, and The Frog King with a life lesson to “be nice and good and don’t stray from the path,” and many magical stories around Christmastime with angels and shepherds in the fields. Music was in the air.
I presented a PowerPoint lecture in 2020 in Santa Fe: The Magic of Stories – The Adventures of Wilhelm: A Rat’s Story.
Writing my own story started off as a personal and very private process, only to be shared with my family. Invitations to speak about it to various audiences came to me as a surprise, and accepting them took much courage. How would people respond to a German war survivor story at a time when Holocaust survivors and their stories continue to weigh so heavily on our souls and remind us of all the evil in Germany during the Hitler terror regime?
I accepted that we all have a story to tell and there need not to be a competition of victimhood. That insight freed my speaking at professional conferences, such as joining a panel for various war survivors including Holocaust survivors (“Warm Ashes,” 2007). I presented at various writers’ workshops and received affirmations, and I spoke to professional groups, to church groups, and to college classes. I noticed tears in people’s eyes and listened to their questions (Return to Dresden, 2004). I also taught classes on trauma and recovery and published an article, “Silence as the Voice of Trauma,” in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 74, no.2, June 2014. I moved from being silent to writing and speaking with a clear voice. I even dared to write short stories and poetry to speak with a happier voice.
To think about publishing my story took another courageous step. A book on paper or in eBook form does represent a permanent document, not only for friends and family, but as a brave act by the writer to let it go to a wider reading audience. What would the various readers think? How would they respond? With the help from many friends, colleagues, editors, and the self-publishing services of David Wogahn’s Authorimprints.com, my story took on a book form that I can touch. I held the book in my hands to reach an emotional ending for me and maybe for many readers.
What are some of the ways you’ve shared news of the book, or the book itself, with others? Are there any reactions you’ve received that surprised you?
Maria: Surprises happen when we least expect them, and I want to share just a few. Several months ago, I saw a small ad in a local community newspaper looking for WWII memories and stories. I took my courage and contacted the source and was connected to a colleague and author, Brenda Love Zejdl in Prague, who was putting together a collection of WWII stories such as memories of partisans, military, prisoners of war, emigrees, children of war and others. She included my story, and it found another home there among so many voices. (Brenda Love, WWII Memoirs, 2021.) The book is now also translated into Czech.
I recently met Brenda in Dresden, Germany, where I could thank her for connecting me with her colleagues and the Dokumentations Zentrum Flucht, Vertreibung, Versoehnung in Berlin, Germany. She had visited the Centre several months earlier and had offered my book to them. On September 3, 2022, both of my memoirs, Return to Dresden and Return to Leipzig, were inducted and placed into the library of the Documentation Centre. I was invited to personally bring my books to their new home in Berlin, joined by family members and the Centre staff. My story found its home again (see brochure and descriptions in German and English below).
The Documentation Centre is a new museum that provides information about the causes, dimensions, and consequences of displacement, expulsion, and forced migration of millions of survivors in Europe and beyond at the end of the Second World War. It is a place of historical education and lively debate in the spirit of reconciliation. A current exhibition presents the diversity of Jewish experiences in the immediate post-war period for the first time from a pan-European, transnational perspective.
Stories of war, loss, and suffering not only invite compassionate responses in some of the listeners but also stir profound pain, anger, and post-traumatic feelings in others. I remember at a conference after I had finished my contribution and a short story of my family, a man got up and screamed while walking out the room, “The Germans haven’t been punished enough yet.” Deep silence followed, with the insight that some deep wounds will never heal.
I have also received anonymous hate mail full of anger and bitterness. “Lady, go back to Germany. You do not belong in my country. God bless America . . . Madam Nazi . . . You asshole Germans . . . Plus you had the audacity to have your picture printed on the front page. I found it extremely offensive to have to look at your Kraut face!” (Newspaper article, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 8, 2015.)
And finally, the following story. During those years of displacement and hunger in 1947, surrounded by ruins, the adults lived with the ideological defeat, deep shame, crushed faith, and devastation of a trashed nation while fearing the brutal revenge of the Russian occupation. More so, we all were hungry and cold during the winter. They called it die Hungersnot, the famine.
And then, a miracle happened. Starting in 1947, a group of Sunday-school members of a Methodist church in the Los Angeles, California, area began to send us CARE packages, one at a time—all in all, 64 packages over the next six years. They contained food and clothes to keep us alive and warm, basic items such as flour, sugar, Spam, Velveeta, and milk powder, as well as yarn, soap, and even toys. Faithfully, my mother in return wrote back many thank-you letters, some in half-English, half-German. Someone in that distant Sunday-school class took the time to translate some of Mother’s letters into readable English and saved them in a folder somewhere in their back office. I remember my mother sitting at the table late at night, when we had gone to bed, reading “Dear Blanche . . .” These letters tell our story.
In our time of emails, tweets, and texting, handwritten letters on paper seem so outdated, like old clothes you keep in the closet for sentimental reasons. But several years ago, those letters were found and connected with me. What a surprise and a gift! I have been given those thank-you and family letters to keep, but what for?
Mother’s thank-you letters also found another welcome home many years later. After I had received her letters, which are now included in my book Return to Leipzig, the connection with the Temple City Methodist church blossomed again. On a special Sunday in January 2014, I visited the congregation and shared with them what the “saints” of their Sunday-school class way back in the time after war had done for my family and for many others. They had saved our lives. With a warm reception, my book is now on their library shelves. The congregation recently celebrated a special anniversary and my video with greetings and gratitude became part of the service. The letters in Return to Leipzig (2022) tell the story of human compassion, of survival and the power of faith. Gratitude is timeless.
The Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation is located in the heart of Berlin, Germany, at the Anhalter Bahnhof (opens in Google Maps). It is a unique place of learning about and remembrance of displacement, expulsion, and forced migration in history and the present.
Here is a copy of the brochure for visitors and tourists. The German title is at the right bottom of the cover page (Dokumentations Zentrum – Flucht Vertreibung Versoehnung (German)):
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers who are wondering if their personal stories have meaning beyond their immediate families?
Maria: It is hard to open up personal stories to readers outside of your family due to fear of rejection or being totally ignored. It may be a lonely place after you spent months and months writing and sharing personal experiences, feelings, and maybe even family secrets.
- Accept the unknown. A book out on the market will take its own path and may be found by a reader who can identify with the story and will feel validation and connection.
- A book can be gifted to friends and colleagues, bookstores, and local libraries, and it can lead to an invitation for a gathering on a certain theme. It can also be shared in a book club. Their feedback is helpful and validating.
- We all have a story that formed our lives. It is important to write and share it with others with the assurance that we are not alone. A book proves a writer’s courage to organize thoughts and feelings into words and stories and then let them go after the last sentence.
- Maybe we have finished another chapter in our lives when publishing a book, but our life’s journey is not finished.
- Yes, there are more and more memoirs these days on the bestseller list, and there are marketing services that offer wide exposure and rewards. My rewards have come from connecting with others and listening to their responses, their stories, and their recovered feelings. Sharing, not money, is the reward.
About Maria Ritter
Return to Leipzig is Maria’s fifth book. In three of Dr. Ritter’s prior books, she used storytelling to help her readers make sense of the world around them.
The Golden Cup (2020) is a modern folk tale about turning broken shards into golden opportunities. With vivid illustrations, The Golden Cup brings to life the story of Sieglinde, a young woman who embarks on an emotional journey to find her hidden gifts and her purpose.
The Adventures of Wilhelm: A Rat’s Tale (2018) is an allegorical coming-of-age travel adventure that inspires thinking about good and evil, tolerance, and acceptance, while helping readers learn about the importance of valuing other cultures.
Return to Dresden (2004), is an autobiographical reflection on her childhood in Germany during and after World War II, a healing memoir that confronts national guilt for the Nazi past.
On the Path and Other Wanderings (2015) is a collection of poems and stories on people, animals, and encounters. These rhymes and musings, short stories and reflective memories can inspire others to search their own attics and archives of memory for keepsake treasures.