Monday 11 July 2022

Join The Coffee Pot Book Club in conversation with #HistoricalFiction author, Rachel R. Heil #interview @HeilRachelR

Leningrad: The People’s War 
(Leningrad, Book 1)
By Rachel R. Heil

Publication Date: 5th February 2021
Publisher: Independently Published
Page Length: 326 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance 

Leningrad, 1941. As Europe crumbles under the German war machine, the people of the Soviet Union watch. There are whispers of war but not loud enough for the civilians of Leningrad to notice. Instead, they keep their heads down and try to avoid the ever-watching eyes of their own oppressive government.

University student Tatiana Ivankova tries to look ahead to the future after a family tragedy that characterizes life under the brutal regime. But, when the rumors that have been circulating the country become a terrifying reality, Tatiana realizes that the greatest fear may not be the enemy but what her fellow citizens are prepared to do to each other to survive. 

As his men plow through the Russian countryside, Heinrich Nottebohm is told to follow orders and ask no questions, even if such commands go against his own principles. His superiors hold over him a past event that continues to destroy him with every day that passes. But, when given the opportunity to take an act of defiance, Heinrich will jump at the chance, ignoring what the end results could be. 

Leningrad: The People’s War tells the harrowing beginning of a war that forever changed the landscape of a city, told through the eyes of both sides in a tale of courage, love, and sacrifice. 

Could you tell us a little about your book and what inspired you to set your story during this period in history? 

Leningrad: The People’s War is the first book in a three book series set during the Siege of Leningrad. This blockade lasted from September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944, making it one of the longest sieges in history. The People’s War follows Soviet civilians and German soldiers from the start of the invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941 to the start of the first winter of the siege. The story follows Soviet civilian Tatiana Ivankova who, after performing a heroic act, is volunteered into a women’s unit tasked with protecting the city as the Germans draw closer. As Tatiana defends the city she soon catches the unwanted attention of the Germans, led by Heinrich Nottebohm, who is tasked with finding Tatiana and eliminating the threat she poses. I was inspired to write this story when I read about the history of the siege and the people who survived the ordeal. I was struck by the strength and resilience of Leningraders, who went through so much, lost many close friends and family members, and then tried to return to their normal lives after the war but were continuingly viewed as an embarrassment by the Soviet government and faced many challenges and ordeals. It wasn’t until the Soviet archives were opened to the people in the 1980s that survivors began to speak about their experiences. I was absolutely fascinated by this event that is rarely discussed in the vast canon of World War Two and when I found very few fictional stories depicting the siege I decided I had to write a story that told this event from start to finish. 

When researching this era, did you come upon any unexpected surprises? 

Going into the research phase, I had some expectations of what I would and would not find. The Soviet Union tried to censor and contain a lot of the information surrounding the siege because they knew they had failed in protecting civilians. They refused to let Leningraders evacuate when they had time and the food chain fell apart during the first winter of the blockade, leading to countless people losing their lives. Even the famous Road to Life, which was created on the frozen Lake Ladoga to get survivors out of Leningrad, was bungled and was not perfected until the second winter of the siege, by which time the number of survivors had dwindled. This lack of access to the truth has continued into today as the Russian government will still not disclose vital information to the world, such as the death toll or how many people were truly evacuated before the Germans reached Leningrad. As a result, I knew information might be scarce on certain aspects of this historical saga and I would have to rely heavily on survivor testimonies and the few accounts written by historians. As I began the research process I did come across a few surprises along the way. The biggest surprise to me was the survivors themselves. In the immediate aftermath of Leningrad being liberated, the Soviet government elevated the city and its survivors to hero status. But, within a few years, that was all swept away as stories about the horrors Leningraders had witnessed started being spread and told to Soviet citizens outside the city. To contain the damage and save their own reputation, the Soviet government restricted what could be told about the siege and survivors found themselves being targeted. Despite this, many of them fought back against this treatment and won small victories in the next few decades, including having memorials created in the city to commemorate those lost and the establishment of a memorial cemetery where thousands of siege victims are buried. Still, many faced discrimination, and many didn’t feel comfortable sharing their stories until nearly fifty years after the end of the war. To me, this was a surprising revelation as World War Two is held in such high esteem in Russia today. Referred to as the Great Patriotic War, veterans and survivors of the war are highly respected and honoured in Russia and while this seemed to be the case for most individuals throughout the years, it was not always true for Leningraders. To me, it seemed the survivors never got their proper recognition until thirty years ago and considering the situations they faced I found this very sad and mindboggling. 

Why do you think this period in history still fascinates readers? 

Oh, that’s a very good question! World War Two is one of those events in history that everyone is seemingly fascinated by and I think that’s for a variety of reasons. For one, in the grand scheme of history, it didn’t happen that long ago. We still have veterans and survivors who can share their stories of what they experienced and how they felt. I do sometimes wonder if, once the last veteran passes away and the last survivor of a major event during the war like the Siege of Leningrad passes if that will eliminate some interest in the topic. I’m not sure but I do think people having a physical connection like a relative who served or survived World War Two helps hold our fascination with the topic. For me personally, I became fascinated in it because I was interested in my paternal grandfather’s service. He came in at the tail end of the war and served in Allied occupied Italy, guarding German prisoners of war. While I never got to ask him about his service, I’ve been able to hear stories from my father about his service and that connection has helped grow my interest in the topic. Finally, I think the Second World War fascinates readers because it's effect on the modern world can still be felt. Many of the events that transpired in the decades that followed were a direct result of what happened during the war, such as the Iron Curtain, the establishment of Israel as its own country, and the establishment of the United Nations. All of these actions can be traced back to the war and helps add to people's interest. 

What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction during this era? 

Honestly, it’s the fact that everyone knows how it’s going to end. We all know that the Allies are going to win and Hitler will be defeated. As an author I can’t change that outcome so I focus on my fictional characters and the situations they are in. I can do whatever I want with them and keep the reader interested. Yes, the Soviet Union ends up winning, but what is going to happen to Tatiana and her family? Does she get caught? Does she survive? Those are the type of questions I want the reader to be asking as they read the story and what I hope keeps them interested. 

Does one of the main characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why? 

Ah, all my characters hold a special place in my heart. However, I think it’s because I try to base all my characters on people who went through the event that is being portrayed in my book. Tatiana and Heinrich are a combination of many different people I read about, which makes them more special to me. The fact that I know Tatiana and Heinrich are based on someone who lived through the siege makes them all the more important to me and helps bridge that connection between me, a writer in the twenty-first century, to the people who lived during a war that happened in the twentieth century. 


“WE FOUND HER! Here she is! Here she is!”

Heinrich looked up from the disturbing reports he was reading about the Germans taking Pavlovsk and Pushkin and found that a number of his men had invaded his tent. Bechtold was at the front, wildly waving a Soviet newspaper in the air.

He slammed it down on the table in front of Heinrich and repeatedly poked the paper. “This is her. This is her.”

Heinrich found Bechtold gesturing to a large picture of a young woman with thick black hair. She wore an army uniform, gun swung over her shoulder, and looked at the
camera with a smirk. The headline stated ‘TATIANA IVANKOVA: A HERO OF THE PEOPLE!’

Heinrich removed the newspaper from under Bechtold’s finger. “Who is she?”

“The woman who destroyed that tank a few days ago,” Bechtold said breathlessly.

His partner Dinter came up next to him. “It’s true, sir! The soldier who survived the attack identified her this morning when he saw the picture.”

“We have a target.” Sauer was standing in the corner, arms folded across his chest, decidedly menacing in the poor lighting. “We must now take action.”

“Take action?” Schneider looked at Sauer.

“Of course! She must pay for what she did.” Sauer balled his hand into a fist and slammed it into his open palm. “Hang her from the street corner so everyone can see her.”

Heinrich’s eyes were still glued to the newspaper as the men continued to argue about the proper punishment. Heinrich was stunned. He had expected someone older, perhaps a mother with a murdered son wanting revenge, but instead he was staring at a young woman who was most likely university age and had probably never experienced hardship in her life. Why had the army recruited her? He was determined to learn everything about this woman. Somewhere, he would find the answers he was looking for.

“Gentlemen.” Heinrich’s voice rose above them, and they all turned to him while he got to his feet. He held the newspaper so everyone could see the woman’s photo. “We must be vigilant and keep our eyes open for this,” he looked back at the paper, “Tatiana Ivankova.”

“Nothing we can’t handle, sir,” Sauer’s sidekick, Hermann, gloated.

“Nevertheless,” Heinrich ignored him, “keep an eye open. If you are able to capture her along with her comrades,” he unfolded the paper and pointed to a smaller photo of the woman’s apparent comrades; another dark-headed beauty and a blond, “you are to bring them directly to me. You are not to harm them.”

There were murmurs of displeasure.

“She may have secrets,” Heinrich explained. “And I will not pass an opportunity that may save our men’s lives. Understood?”

“Jawohl, Oberstleutnant!”

The men exited the tent and Heinrich sat down, placing the paper on his desk. Returning to his initial reports, he continued to read on. Max’s unit had started to take the palaces inside Leningrad. They spoke of how they had found civilians inside, unaware the Germans were so close. Even more disturbing, they discovered some returning from the city, having been turned away by the police as they did not have residency permits. Why had they been so unprepared? Had they, in their arrogance, refused even to contemplate the idea the Germans could take Leningrad?

Overhead, Heinrich could hear planes heading to bomb the city again. Glancing back at the photo of the young woman, he began to think he would be doing her a favor by saving her from her government.

Rachel R. Heil is a historical fiction writer who always dreamed of being an author. After years of dreaming, she finally decided to turn this dream into a reality with her first novel, and series, Behind the Darkened Glass. Rachel is an avid history fan, primarily focused on twentieth century history and particularly World War Two-era events. In addition to her love for history, Rachel loves following the British Royal Family and traveling the world, which only opens the door to learning more about a country's history. Rachel resides in Wisconsin.

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