Comedian and author Ben Elton has written a disturbing tale of Nazi persecution – inspired by his own remarkable family history.
IT sounds like an unlikely plot in the prelude to the Second World War ... “twins” ending up on opposing sides, one a German officer and the other fighting for the British Army.
But that is the basis of Ben Elton’s latest novel, Two Brothers, a fictional tale inspired by Ben’s own family history which saw his Jewish father’s adopted cousin fight in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War while his uncle was fighting for the British Army.
Ben’s father, Ludwig Ehrenburg, was born in Germany into a secular family of Jewish descent.
With his parents and older brother Gottfried, he came to Britain in 1939 via Czechoslovakia, where his father worked as a professor of ancient history at Prague University.
Ben, 53, says: “The German schools went Nazi before Hitler came in. My father and uncle were insulted by Nazi teachers and witnessed the confusion of the so-called Mischling (the German term used during the Third Reich to denote persons deemed to have only partial Aryan ancestry).”
Gottfried and Ludwig’s adopted cousin, Heinz, stayed in Germany to be a farmer but was soon drafted into the Wehrmacht.
“People think, does that mean you had a Nazi in the family? Well, no, of course not,” Elton reflects. “Heinz was an ordinary German who became a farmer caught up in a geo-political situation like many other people and was drafted into the Wehrmacht and, short of allowing himself to be shot, he didn’t really have much choice.”
When Gottfried enlisted in the British Army he was told to anglicise his name in case of capture by the Germans so he became Geoffrey Elton while Ludwig became Lewis Elton.
Ben says: “The fact that both cousins survived and were able to be friends afterwards is the best part of the story.”
He adds: “My experience of people who’ve lived through difficult times is they’re not as anxious to talk about it as those who’ve been lucky enough not to live in difficult times are to hear about it.”
Ben feels uncomfortable talking about Heinz, who is still alive and whom he met as a boy through occasional family holidays.
“I know him as a wonderful, kind, robust farmer and three or four times we had holidays on his farm,” he says. “My father and uncle were very close to him.
“Whether they ever discussed what it was like to fight for an army that was actively involved in wanting to kill us I don’t know. I’ve never asked. I believe Heinz never spoke about it.
“I remember once finding an old steel German helmet at his farm in a wood. I was 10 and terribly excited about it, went back and had it on my head and pretended to do a Nazi salute, utterly unaware of the significance.
“I remember the sadness on his face and my mum telling me not to make that symbol.”
The novel Two Brothers follows the story of babies born in Berlin in 1920 ... one Jewish, the other adopted, but both raised as twins unaware of the adoption.
And while the author builds a terrifying picture of persecution of the Jews, he tries to remain optimistic about future generations.
Ben says: “I believe that in the long run the human capacity for good is greater than the human capacity for evil, and that the fact that humanity can love can and will be its salvation.
“People tend to be generally good. It’s only when they get into crowds that they start to act badly.”
Although he is half Jewish by birth, Elton is an atheist.
He made Australia his permanent base three years ago, settling in Fremantle, near Perth, with his wife, Australian saxophonist Sophie Gare, and their children, Fred, 11, and twins Bert and Lottie, 13. They also have a home in Sussex and are spending time in England while he’s writing a BBC family sitcom called Slings And Arrows.
Ben explains: “It’s along the good-natured lines of The Thin Blue Line, starring David Haig as a man who is a dedicated health and safety officer ... a very good man but somewhat finicky in his obsession with eliminating risk within his neighbourhood.”
:: Two Brothers by Ben Elton is published by Bantam, priced £18.99.