Ebury has triumphed in a five-publisher auction for a family memoir from Bloomberg correspondent Svenja O’Donnell about her grandmother’s secret life in Second World War Germany, kept hidden for 60 years.
Clare Bullock, editor at Ebury, acquired UK and commonwealth rights excluding Canada to Where The Trees Whisper from Felicity Bryan from Felicity Bryan Associates on Wednesday (6th March), following a one-day auction.
O’Donnell, Bloomberg’s UK political correspondent, did not know much about grandmother’s past, except that she had grown up in a place that no longer existed on any map: Königsburg in East Prussia. But when O’Donnell moved to Moscow for work and then visited what is now known as Kaliningrad “to see the windswept city on the Baltic Sea where her ancestors had lived; once there, she telephoned her grandmother—who unexpectedly burst into tears”.
Where The Trees Whisper explores her grandmother’s story: which begins in the secret jazz bars in Hitler’s Berlin and features “passionate first love, separation, betrayal, terror, flight, starvation and violence”.
“It is a story that comes with deep shame, as a woman living in Nazi Germany, who witnessed the first stirrings of the Holocaust, there are difficult questions to answer,” Ebury said. “As Svenja teases out the threads of her grandmother’s life, retracing her steps all over Europe, she realises that there is suffering here on a scale that she had never dreamt of. And finally, she uncovers a desperately tragic secret that her grandmother has been keeping for 60 years.”
Bullock told The Bookseller: “I was immediately intrigued by the idea of Svenja’s book—a secret history, a lost homeland—and as I read, found myself increasingly drawn into this examination of legacy and inheritance, of what family means, and of how we decide who deserves to have their stories heard. Svenja writes with a journalist’s clear eye for haunting detail and gripping tales, but also with a lyricism that makes for something incredibly special. I’m absolutely delighted that we will be publishing it at Ebury Press.”
O’Donnell said: “I am thrilled to be working with a team as dynamic and exciting as Ebury’s. To those of us of German descent, the question, ‘what would I have done in wartime?’ is laden with silence and guilt. Hidden within my own family’s past, I discovered a remarkable story; not one of heroism and evil, but that of ordinary women and the things we do to survive. That of my German grandmother, who, like millions of women, lived her war on the wrong side of history.
“I am delighted to have found in Clare Bullock an editor whose sensitivity and passion will help me give them a voice.”
O’Donnell grew up in Paris with a German mother and an Irish father, before attending university in the UK. As Bloomberg’s UK political correspondent, she was awarded the Washington-based National Press Club’s Breaking News award in 2017 for her coverage of the Brexit referendum. She has travelled all over the word for assignments and has appeared on BBC, Sky News and France 24.
There have been various Second World War-related titles in recent weeks across fiction and non-fiction including thriller Liberation going to Sphere with a film starring Ann Hathaway in the works, Bloomsbury UK and US pre-empting the debut novel from L Annette Binder, inspired by her own family’s experience under the Third Reich, as well as The Lives Before Us, inspired by the Shanghai ghetto from the Second World War by Juliet Conlin.