While the other Rogue Women Writers and I write some great characters and some great spies, there were several real life spies and characters from WWII that have captured my imagination. Their stories are different, their motivations are different, but—good or bad—they all felt passionately about the path they chose to follow. When I read their stories, I tend to try to put myself in their shoes and wonder what I would do if I were in their position. Would I be brave, and risk life and limb to battle an enemy that threatens my family and my way of life? Would I choose to martyr myself to a cause, or become a victim, or change in order to justify my actions—or lack thereof?
When I’m reading good crime fiction, it’s the personal motivations and emotions of the characters that captures my interest and compels me to read into the wee hours of the night. We all experience feelings of sadness, joy, love and hate, but a good writer immerses you in the experiences of their characters. Exploring the motivations of real life heroes and villains helps me bring a realism to my characters and makes them come to life on the page.
#1 Real Life Spy – Faye Schulman (born November 28, 1919—Present)
Faye, a skilled photographer, lived in the Lenin ghetto in Poland. On August 14, 1942, the Germans killed 1,850 Jews there, including Faye’s family. They spared only 26 people, among them Faye for her photographic abilities. The Germans ordered Faye to develop their photographs of the massacre. Secretly she also made copies for herself.
Later, during a partisan raid, Faye fled and joined the Molotava Brigade, a group of partisan fighters. As the only Jewish woman in a group of mostly former Soviet POWs, she kept her identify a secret and for the next two years took a series of incredible photographs that captured the daily lives of partisan fighters during the war, documenting their bravery and sacrifices.
“I want people to know that there was resistance,” she said in an interview after the war. “Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.”
While few of us have experienced events like the Holocaust in our lives, most of us have felt the loss of someone or something we love so much that we felt compelled to do something to avenge that loss or to honor their memory. Most of us have also seen someone do something we think the world should take notice of. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where it’s you against the world, but then you discover you actually have friends or allies who stand with you?
In DARK WATERS, my character Raisa Jordan knows what she must do and there are a handful of people who stand with her to try and stop a plot that would devastate millions.
Born Stella Goldschlag, she was raised in Berlin as the only child in a middle-class Jewish family. After her parents were denied visas to leave Germany, Stella (known for her “Aryan” beauty) disappeared underground about the time Berlin Jews began being sent to extermination camps, using forged papers to pass as a non-Jew.
In the spring of 1943, Stella and her parents were arrested by the Nazis. Subjected to torture, Stella agreed to hunt down Jews hiding as non-Jews for the Gestapo. In return she and her parents were not to be deported, plus she was to be paid a modest sum for every Jew that she betrayed. The number of Jews she’s suspected of turning in ranges anywhere from 600 to 3,000.
The Nazis called her “blonde poison,” but despite her collaboration, they eventually broke their promise and her parents were deported and killed. Still Stella continued working for the Gestapo until March 1945. At the end of the war she was sentenced, tried and convicted and was imprisoned ten years for her crimes. She eventually converted to Christianity and became an open anti-Semitic. In 1994, Stella committed suicide by throwing herself out of her apartment window.
Many of us have been pressured into doing things we don’t want to do, and sometimes through promises that turn out to be false. Have you ever tried to convince yourself that you were right rather than face the horrible truth that what you’ve done was wrong?
In DARK WATERS, Raisa learns a secret about her past, then convinces herself that keeping that secret (one that might cause her to lose her job) is the right thing to do.
#3 Real Life Inventor – Hedy Lamarr (November 9, 1914—January 19, 2000
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian immigrant, ardent Nazi despiser and famous 1930s and 1940s actress who appeared in countless films alongside the likes of Charles Boyer, Spencer Tracy, and Clark Gable. She also was a passionate inventor who came up with critically important military technology. Working with composer George Antheil, she patented what they called the “Secret Communication System,” a method of preventing enemy ships from jamming American torpedoesby making radio signals jump between frequencies rather than stay on a single channel. The idea later became the underpinings of both secure military communications and mobile phone technology. It’s also basically the reason we have things like GPS, Bluetooth, and advanced guided missile technology.
The original idea (meant to solve problems during World War II) was largely ignored until the 1960s, when some male scientists put Hedy’s invention to use during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This technological achievement combined with her acting talent made Hedy a truly amazing woman.
How many of us have had an idea for something and thought: I should make that or do that. Then someone else does, and you think: if only I had…, I would have made a fortune or effected big changes for yourself or the world.
In DARK WATERS, Raisa Jordan comes up with an idea and must implement it in the face of skeptics if she has any hope of stopping a deadly plot already set in motion.
4. Lyudmila Pavlichenko: Soviet Sniper (July 12, 1916—October 10, 1974)
Born in Bila Tserkva, Lyudmila moved to Kyiv with her family at the age of fourteen. She joined a shooting club and became an amateur sharpshooter. In June 1941, she was a fourth year history student at Kyiv University when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Lyudmila was among the first round of volunteers at the recruiting offices, and was eventually assigned to the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division. She became one of 2,000 female snipers in the Red Army, of which only about 500 survived the war.
As a USSR citizen fighting the Nazis, Lyudmila recorded 309 kills, including 36 enemy snipers. In 1942, she toured the U.S., and then in 1943 was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union and commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. After being wounded in service, Lyudmila was pulled from the field. Then, having achieved the rank of major, she became an instructor and trained Soviet snipers until the war’s end.
Most of us have at one time or another employed a skill that we possess that no one else has to help to achieve a goal. If we’re good at a team sport, we’ve held up our end to win the game; if we’re good at carpentry, we’ve helped the high school build a set for the spring musical.
In DARK WATERS, Batya Ganani is a Shin Bet sniper, who uses her skills to help her country and to help protect the lives of Raisa Jordan and the team when they attempt to stop a plot already in motion.
There are a lot of great spies out there. Who are your favorites?
Thanks, Christine, for this great post. I always think I'm up on all things World War II and Holocaust related, but I didn't know the stories of these women, except for Lyudmilla. Women are so often the unnoticed and unsung heroes.
Wow, Chris, what a terrific post. Fascinating. I loved reading about these interesting people and what happened to them. Thanks!
What a fabulous history lesson about those fascinating women! I was especially taken with your story about Faye Schulman – the brave photographer. What courage she had! And I have long been intrigued with Hedy Lamarr. I read about her background several years ago, and as you incorporated the ideas and challenges of the women listed here into many of your great stories, I was inspired by Hedy – and used her in my first thriller, "Checkmate." Thanks for all of this wonderful information — I really enjoyed reading it!
Chris, this is so interesting! I didn't know about the Russian sniper. I'm looking forward to reading DARK WATERS!
I was taken by Faye Schulman, too, Chris–I immediately thought there was a movie in her story. Reminds me, as well, of the fabulous novel CITY OF THIEVES, about young partisans in Russia during WWII. So appreciate all of your information.
Heddy Lamar was quite an interesting woman! Great post!
Everyone, thanks so much for the comments. Like you, Francine, I can see a movie being made about Faye Schulman. She was amazingly brave–or maybe just determined to avenge the murder of her family by exposing the atrocities.