The Children's War

The Children's War

by Monique Charlesworth
The Children's War

The Children's War

by Monique Charlesworth


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This is the story of two children caught in the midst of war.It is 1939 and thirteen-year-old Ilse, half-Jewish, has been sent out of Germany by her Aryan mother to a place of supposed safety. Her journey takes her from the labyrinthine bazaars of Morocco to Paris, a city made hectic at the threat of Nazi invasion. At the same time in Germany, Nicolai, a boy miserably destined for the Nazi Youth movement, finds comfort in the friendship of Ilse’s mother, the nursemaid hired to take care of his young sister. Gripping and poignant, The Children’s War is a stunning novel of wartime lives, of parents and children, of adventure and self-discovery.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400032075
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/13/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.24(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.88(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Monique Charlesworth was born in Birkenhead, England, and has lived in France and Germany. She began writing fiction while living in Hong Kong and is the author of three previous novels. She has worked as a journalist and as a screenwriter for both film and television. She lives with her husband and two children in London.

Read an Excerpt


Marseilles, March 1939

Ilse held her suitcase safe between her knees. There was a continuous loud crackle of announcements, which she could not understand. After an hour she moved to the corner seat beside the frosted glass window, for this gave an angled view of the Gare St. Charles. There she watched the constant flickering of single and multiple blurs against the yellow advertisement for Amer Picon. Any one of those blurs might open the door from the huge vault of the station and solidify into the person collecting her. This was distracting. Each time the door opened and it was not for her, she could not settle. In the guidebook, the tour of Marseilles occupied twelve pages, whereas Paris took up thirty-three. Marseilles was a mighty port, the oldest of the cities of France. Ilse shut her eyes and conjured up the map of the harbour which, facing west, was defended by its two great forts, Saint-Jean, to the north, and Saint-Nicolas, to the south. How happy her mother had been to find a guidebook in French in the tiny foreign language section of the Wuppertal public library.

Greeks from Asia Minor had landed here twenty-six centuries ago, dark men in galleys with long oars. Centuries passed. Another hour went by. The city of enthusiasms welcomed the revolution, sent five hundred volunteers to Paris. The soldiers from Marseilles electrified the crowd with their rendition of a new marching song. It became the hymn of the revolution and was renamed in their honour. The guidebook had printed all the verses. She sang them in her head: the day of glory has arrived. People came and were collected and were replaced. Yawning, she feared to sleep. Marseilles, she recited to herself, is the great western emporium for trade with the Levant, importer of grains, sugar, peanuts, copra and Indian corn. How hungry she was. The big boy with the scuffed shoes unwrapped and ate his picnic, shovelling bread into his mouth. The woman with two small children went away to the café and then returned with chocolate bars. But Ilse did not move. What if the Red Cross woman came and did not find her there? Her legs felt funny, tingling with pins and needles but also very soft. Anxiety blurred the din, sharpened the ceaseless turning and returning of the same thoughts. Her head jerked up as once more the door opened abruptly, letting in a swell of noise.

It was a short woman with dark hair dyed blonde. “Du bist Ilse,”* she said. She was not German. Ilse stood, a little wobbly. Certainty, which should have brought relief, was worrying. How had she recognised her? The Red Cross woman beckoned to Ilse to come nearer. She smelt of sweat, her pink face thickly powdered. With a pencil, she trailed down her typed list and crossed off Ilse’s name, scoring it deeply. “Come! Hurry you along!” she said in an odd mixture of German and French.

They hurried through to daylight and dust and wind. A huge flight of steps led past massive statues down to a boulevard. There was a hotel opposite and the sprawling city below, a patch of green to one side. Ilse noticed some young children playing and paused just for an instant but the woman (red woman, cross woman) hurried her on. They were to take a taxi. As she opened the door, the woman told the driver to go straight to the ship’s offices and to take the most direct way. She was disinclined to talk, which seemed to Ilse a great pity and an opportunity missed. Wriggling forward in the seat, the woman took off her jacket and eased her feet out of her shoes, as though she was on her own. How busy she must be, to need this moment so badly. Her feet were swollen with angry-looking bunions, the blouse ringed with sweat stains under the arms. She studied the list, which was typed on both sides of the piece of paper, as she bit at ragged cuticles. Her hands looked raw and used. Perhaps she went back and forth all day, shuttling unknown children on and off boats, to and from stations. Ilse hoped so. She badly wanted a companion.

Jolted against the acrid odour of sweat and perfume on the turns, Ilse looked in vain for traces of the great trading city. There was no sight of the world-famous Canebière (“broad boulevard at the heart of Marseilles where those touring Provence must choose to stay; site, in more turbulent times, of a permanent guillotine”). She saw unremarkable streets full of people and trolley cars and trees whipped by the wind. She tried to see the street names, for the French loved liberty, equality and fraternity. Every town in France boasted a street named after deputy Mirabeau, a Jean Jaurès or a Garibaldi. Her mother had explained that France honoured great men who fought for freedom, even the foreign ones. There could never be a Hitlerplatz here. This was why everyone loved France. Hard as she tried, squinting against the light, the streets reeled by much too fast for her to read the names. But for the dirt and the names of the shops, it might have been Düsseldorf. They turned into smaller and darker streets. There was still no sign of the sea but she had smelt it in the sharpness of the wind; she felt its nearness in the way the streets all hurried down towards the water.

She cleared her throat and spoke in her careful French. “Can we go to Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde? From the peak, one can admire the view of the town and the Mediterranean.”


“A church. It is called Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde.”

“You want a church?” said the woman, giving her a curious, sidelong look.

“There is a lovely panorama over the sea,” persisted Ilse. The steeple, with its gilded ten-metre-high Virgin, rose fifty metres above the hill. The guidebook said that it was the Virgin who kept the city safe.

“Ah no, there is no time. It’s the opposite way,” she said.

Ilse had the timetable of her long journey firmly fixed in her head. She knew that she had hours to spare. She looked at the woman and the way her fingers ripped at each other, and her turned-away face.

They turned into a square and then the taxi drew up at a big cream building. The woman told the driver to wait. A queue spilled onto the street. The woman forced her way inside in the face of protests, tugging Ilse behind her. She cast one look at the room, which was packed with people, and pushed Ilse on, one hand in the small of her back, not unkindly but firmly.

“These people are waiting for the boat to Oran. You’ll go from La Joliette. That’s the new port. You can walk to the dock from here. Go with the others. You understand?”

Ilse nodded.

She watched the short figure stumping out to disappear into the haze, the last link in the human chain that had moved her to this place. She knew that the woman was supposed to see her onto the boat. Sitting on the suitcase, Ilse was level with the legs shuffling towards the ticket office. She had been wrong to mind the smell of sweat. The Red Cross woman was the sort of person whose kindness was all used up in her work, leaving nothing over for conversation, no space into which other people might intrude. She would probably never talk to the children she took from place to place. Ilse thought with regret that she had had her opportunity to see Marseilles and she had sat in the station and not taken it. From Strasbourg to here, she had crossed the whole of France without even drinking a cup of the prized French coffee: for this she had nobody but her stupid self to blame. It was nearly three o’clock. French people took two or three hours for lunch. The tables at the charming seafront restaurants would still be full. Her mother had told her how to order food in a proper restaurant and had recommended the bouillabaisse. She would have undertaken any of the excursions her mother and she had planned, had they been offered. But Ilse was incapable of leaving this room, where she had been told to remain, to go to an unknown café, however near.

Weeks ago, her mother had bought a berth in a four-person cabin in a cruiser, a white ship which would set sail from the harbour built by the Romans as the sun set. Big though the ship would be, it hardly seemed possible that all these people could get cabins. They looked hard-pressed and too poor for a luxury cruise. The woman at the guichet was bad-tempered and snapped at anyone who showed the slightest impatience with her. Every berth was taken. There was space on deck. She shrugged her shoulders. If they didn’t want this boat, then they could take the next. For you to choose, she said. But it would be just as crowded if not more so. One or two went away. Most just bought tickets.

Her stomach rumbled. There would be dinner on the boat, perhaps at the captain’s table. Because it was such an expensive journey all the meals were included. Conversation would be animated and pleasant, and the captain would salute his guests in champagne, making toasts to every one of them. “A votre santé, Monsieur le Capitaine.” “Et à la vôtre!”

The people waiting did not look as if they were the kind who dressed for dinner and she felt embarrassed in advance for them, for the awkwardness when they found out. In her case, she had a dress, which she hoped was not too crushed.

At six o’clock a man in a blue official-looking jacket opened the double doors at the back of the room. The crowd pushed forward. A short walk from the back of the building lay the sea, which was not blue at all but nearly black. The wind blew hard and she held her coat together to keep warm. From the quay she saw that despite the pretty name, the Belle de France was not a cruise ship but a ferryboat. Streaks of rust lay down the funnels. There could be no sun loungers on this deck, no pursers in white uniforms. There was no first class. She had been told to find a steward who would have a passenger list and tell her where to go, but no such person seemed to exist.

The decks were already full of people who had no berths, who lay or squatted on the floor and should have been unhappy, but had a kind of ease. Men in long gowns with dark faces and sandals were smoking strong-smelling cigarettes. These were probably Berbers, natives of Morocco. One man gave her a welcoming smile. Coffee-coloured, he was beautiful with eyes of a miraculous, deep blue. She was not to smile back. Her mother had been very clear about whom to talk to (almost nobody) and when (only when essential).

It was stuffy down below, where a long snail of passengers trailed down corridors all carrying luggage and looking for their cabins. Ilse held her suitcase in her arms as a buffer before her and followed the others. People argued. Nobody knew where to go. The names of the passengers were handwritten on slips of paper pasted outside the cabin doors, so each door created another obstacle in this already crowded place. Ilse reminded herself that those like her, shuffling from corridor to corridor, sidestepping and stumbling with their luggage and fighting to see the scraps of paper, were the lucky ones. They would have a bed to sleep on. Mademoiselle Blumenthal’s berth was at the very end of the corridor a further floor down; there seemed no way that fresh air could penetrate these depths. She read a French name and two more German-sounding ones, a Madame Ginsberg and a Mademoiselle Tischler. The door was open: a nun sat on a bunk reading. A fat middle-aged lady wearing a lace blouse sat on the other side with suitcases piled beside her, with eyes closed. When Ilse knocked, she gave a start.

“Bonjour, Mesdames,” she said quietly. A lucky chance had allocated her the top bunk. She lifted up her suitcase and heaved it up, then scrambled up after it. She had not had a space of her own for days. There was a little net on the side, which would be a good place to put her book, her own light switch and a hook for her coat. The blanket was folded in a neat way and perhaps the sheet was clean. She hung up her coat and lay down, and through her trembling legs and the heaviness of her head, which was now aching quite hard, she felt deep relief at being in the precise place which her mother had selected for her. With her eyes closed, she could almost see her mother’s face.

“Are you Mademoiselle Blumenthal?” The fat German lady stood in the middle of the cabin, beaming and looking at her.

Ilse said that she was.

“Miriam Ginsberg, very pleased to meet you.”

She stared too hard. Ilse wondered if she had a smut on her nose. She rubbed it, unobtrusively, checked that her hands were clean.

“My dear. You won’t fall down, will you?”

Ilse said that she was fine. She opened the case, took out Winnetou and hid behind it.

“What are you reading?”

She held up the book politely.

“Isn’t that a book for boys?”

She shook her head, concentrated and read on. A tall, thin woman came in and the fat lady whispered something and then introduced her as her sister, Fräulein Tischler. The sister, who had a sweet smile, held out her hand. Ilse climbed down, did her curtsy, offered her hand and climbed back up again. The thin one whispered through one cupped hand to the fat one, something that Ilse had been taught was extremely rude and quite unnecessary when a person was not even looking in their direction. She turned on one side and read on, facing the wall. If she remained that way round and kept her head down, she could avoid seeing them.

Old Shatterhand, feigning timidity, said he could not swim and asked how deep the water was. The Indians despised this. When kicked into it by Intshu-tshuna, he threw up his hands and dropped into the water with a show of terror. Once in the element he knew so well, everything changed. Like an otter he swam under the cold water, holding his breath, surfacing at the overhang on the opposite bank where there was just room for a man to lift up his face and breathe, and the chance that he would not be seen. It was a daring and a courageous plan.

“Would you like to come and sit with us? It’s much more comfortable down here.”

“No, thank you.”

The Indians had believed his show of fear, despising him, and now they stood, amazed, scanning the waters and wondering where he had gone. With lungs full, Old Shatterhand slid down into the water again and swam with powerful strokes on to the distant bank. The water eddied and flowed, and the Indians stared. By now, surely, he was dead.

Reading Group Guide

“Richly satisfying and utterly absorbing. . . . Fascinating and original. . . . Charlesworth tells the story so artfully that she brings an entirely fresh perspective to bear on familiar psychological territory.” –Robert MacNeil, The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to broaden your group’s discussion of Monique Charlesworth’s moving, indelible, and exquisite novel of loss and survival, The Children’s War.

1. As Ilse waits for her Red Cross escort in Marseilles, she mentally reviews the city guidebook she has memorized, in the hopes of doing some sightseeing on her way out of town. What does this episode reveal about Ilse’s character? What subsequent events does it foreshadow?

2. Ilse is hurt and shocked by Toni’s crass assessment of her family’s business failures and her parents’ ruinous marriage, and later, by Toni’s insistence that Ilse return to Europe. Why, then, does Ilse conjure fond memories of Toni and try to reach her throughout the novel? What is at the root of Toni’s pull on her imagination? How does “Toni’s terrible straightforwardness” [p. 58] influence Ilse as she enters adulthood?

3. Nicolai overhears his father lament, “I’m passing myself off as something I’m not” [p. 36] during one of many arguments with his wife about patriotism. How is this statement echoed in Nicolai’s own experiences? Does it affect his respect for his father?

4. Ilse’s relationship with Otto is based almost entirely in her imagination, since they engage in little dialogue. “It seemed to her that just one level under the darkness that shrouded him there had to be a huge golden space, full of light. This space, which could not be seen from the outside, contained all the love he had for both of them but in these circumstances could not be expressed” [p. 90]. Does Otto confirm this hypothesis at any point? How does Ilse view his suicidal idealism?

5. Willy argues that religion “doesn’t matter. It’s the great tragedy of the twentieth century that it does,” echoing Otto’s assertion that “religion was irrelevant in the twentieth century” [p. 55]. Is Ilse’s obsession with the Catholic faith a direct rebellion against these two father figures? If not, what is the source of her fascination? Are her church rituals a product of faith, or are they spurred by superstition? Is her desire to be baptized motivated by self-preservation as the priest suspects?

6. Nicolai describes the Jungvolk summer camp as a near collision with obliteration: “They blurred together, the shorts above bony knees the same, even the backs of their necks and haircuts seemingly identical, so that he no longer knew which his troop was or barely who he himself might be. In younger, sadder years, camp week had passed in terror at this uniformity. He had been on constant alert, fearful that if he once ducked into the wrong tent, he might find himself forever trapped in somebody else’s life” [p. 109]. What is the meaning of this passage? Is it a commentary on German pre war culture or on herd mentality in general? Does Nicolai escape this dreaded uniformity?

7. What aspects of Francois’s character inspire Ilse’s steadfast love? What does he offer her emotionally? How do her feelings for him evolve over the course of the novel?

8. Why is Nicolai obsessed with the stalled campaign on the Eastern Front and with bringing it to his family’s attention? Are his father’s maxims–“Bad thoughts and ideas expand into the air and then they choke us” [p. 260], and “Honour’s a luxury we don’t have. We’re living the time of dishonour” [p. 261]–meant to silence Nicolai’s opinions?

9. This novel is unique in that the parallel story lines never intersect. While Nicolai actively imagines Ilse, Ilse is unaware of Nicolai’s existence; only after learning of the Hamburg firestorm does she muse, “There had been children in that house, but she would never know anything about them” [p. 347]. Could Ilse’s story stand alone as a novel? Is the failure of Ilse and Nicolai to connect used as a literary device? If so, what does it signify?

10. The Children’s War investigates the power of war to warp and rewire everyday notions of morality. Can Lore’s decision to part ways with Ilse be considered immoral, considering the anguish it causes her child? What about Otto’s decision to destroy Lore’s letters? When Francois allows a child prisoner to be tortured to death in front of him, rather than spill secrets that will lead to the imprisonment and possible death of hundreds of compatriots, where does he fall on the moral spectrum?

11. Nicolai’s feelings for Lore straddle a divide between the infantile and the erotic. Is this a one-way relationship, or is Lore emotionally engaged with him? To what extent is Nicolai seeking a refuge from his own icy, unreliable mother?

12. The novel is rife with marital wrangling: Ilse’s mother resents her husband’s obstinate political passion; Nicolai’s mother resents her husband’s embarrassing political apathy; Toni forbids Willy to join the foreign legion and deserts him when he does; and at least two of the spouses have extramarital affairs. How do their observations of these couples shape Ilse’s and Nicolai’s understanding of romantic relationships?

13. What symbolic role does Nicolai’s photography play in the text? As the novel ends, and he departs the ruins of Hamburg with the remaining members of his family, Nicolai no longer carries his camera. Why does he give it up?

14. Albert Rothberg functions as an archetypal avuncular eccentric, something along the lines of The Nutcracker’s Drosselmeyer. What does he teach Ilse about art, loyalty, and survival? Does she find his lessons enduring?

15. Ilse blames herself for her father’s disappearance when she discovers that he is captured while attempting to purchase an exit visa she had begged for: “In these slow hours her wickedness lay heavily in the corners of the room. She had disobeyed him” [p. 203]. Does she ever recover from this sense of guilt? What accounts for the sudden, uncharacteristic bout of energy that leads Otto to his demise?

16. The Children’s War is punctuated with poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Heinrich Heine. What purpose do the poems serve? Are they used in concert with, or counterpoint to, each other? Why did the author choose these two particular poets?

17. After years of yearning to be cherished like a child again, Ilse realizes that she is unable to attain Francois’s romantic attention specifically because he considers her to be just that. Where else does irony play a pivotal role in the narrative?

18. A major theme in the novel is the devastation that results from parental failure. Ilse and Nicolai both hunger for present, compassionate mothers and focused, sheltering fathers. Both end up cobbling together a parental presence in their lives, composed of memories, self-nurturing, and the kindness of other adults. How is this theme enhanced by the backdrop of war? To what extent does this theme stand alone as a narrative structure?

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