I discovered deeds of great bravery – as well as things to be ashamed of. But learning about my ancestors’ remarkable achievements has given my own life more meaning
When I started researching my mother’s family, I had no idea what I would find, or how the process would affect me. Would I meet interesting relatives? Would I discover unpleasant secrets? Above all, would answering the question “Who do you think you are?” be a positive experience? Growing up, I was told a lot about my father’s side, the Alexanders, who in the 1930s escaped Nazi Germany and came to England. Their stories have always stayed with me and inspired me to write two books: Hanns and Rudolf about my uncle Hanns who tracked down and captured the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and The House by the Lake about my great-grandfather’s weekend house outside Berlin, which bore witness to the 20th century.
History, and my personal connection to it, has always been important to me. I am strangely motivated to explore what happened before my time. When I hold artefacts from the past – whether it’s a crinkled birth certificate, a chipped but much-used cup or some well-thumbed love letter – I’m deeply moved. And so I return to my family’s stories, time and again.