In Sofía Segovia’s new novel, Peregrinos (Pilgrims), two German children, Arno Schipper and Ilse Hahlbrock, embark on a harrowing journey across World War II–torn Europe. One of the most striking things about the book is that Arno and Ilse are based on real people whom Segovia met in her native Mexico. This is her third novel, after Noche de huracán (Night of hurricane) in 2010 and El murmullo de las abejas (The murmur of the bees) in 2015. Peregrinos is being distributed in the U.S. this summer by Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial.
Tell us about the real-life Arno and Ilse.
This a novel inspired by a true story. Right from the start, I knew I would take liberties—because I’m not a historian or biographer, I’m a novelist. I have known the Schipper family for 38 years in Monterrey, Mexico. I’m friends with their third daughter, but I had never considered it prudent to ask about the family story during the war back in Germany. One day, she told me about it, and the story sparked my imagination, as well as the feeling that, in spite of thinking of myself as knowledgeable about World War II, it always felt like a distant, alien thing. I found proof that, on the contrary, the war remained alive in the testimony of people close to me.
What was your process for interviewing Arno and Ilse?
When their story came to me, Arno had already died of cancer. Ilse was the one who bestowed her memories on me. I taped and took notes on the four or five in-person meetings we had, in which she told me about her childhood memories—she was then in her 80s. In each interview, we would repeat the same account because questions kept emerging, and more memories would arise from those questions. There was no transcription. Ilse’s testimony and the findings during the historical investigation were the triggers for my imagination, so Peregrinos is not the story as she told it to me—it’s the tale I imagined.
The novel highlights a little-known aspect of Nazi Germany: the use of Polish Zivilarbeiter, or civilian workers, who were prisoners doing forced work in private businesses. It is personified in the character of Janusz, who is practically raised with the Hahlbrock family and develops a special bond with them.
Ilse told me that they had Zivilarbeiter on their farm, and that when they flipped the wheat, they would create beautiful shapes. She also told me that, when the family escaped, they were accompanied by a young coachman. “What happened with the coachman after the war?” I asked. She only remembered that one day he was not around anymore. From those elements emerges Janusz.
There is also a sort of homage to the old Prussia that practically ceased to exist after the war. As a character says: “There is no Königsberg anymore. You are in Kaliningrad.” How did you research to bring that era back to life?
It is a homage to Prussia and every other land that “disappeared” because of human conflict. In the case of Prussia in particular, the investigation helped. I relied a lot on the texts and testimonies from other survivors that I found, which talked about life before, during, and after the Soviet invasion. I also watched videos on YouTube, actually. Not that there are that many, but you find them.
Nowadays, democratic societies seem willing to accept the suffering of refugees to preserve their own well-being. Do you see parallels with the present?
The history of pilgrimage is the oldest and the timeliest in humanity’s history. Pilgrimage, exodus, and migration were, are, and will be a fact of life: nobody abandons their ancestral land en masse by choice. Nobody leaves without pain and uncertainty. Those who now close their doors would do well to remember that they have been, are, or will be pilgrims themselves. And they would do well to empathize.
In your previous novel, El murmullo de las abejas, you also portrayed a war—the Mexican Revolution—from the point of view of a farmer family. Do you see other similarities with your other books?
All my novels convey my concern for expressing a different point of view from “the other.” In El murmullo, for example, the protagonists are farmers during the revolution, but they are also landowners from Mexico’s northeast, which is unusual in Mexican literature because landowners are always portrayed as bad for being rich, and the northeasterners are generally ignored. In Peregrinos, it’s the same: the protagonists are not what we commonly see as victims but they are victims nonetheless. In Noche de huracán, I go even further: all characters are protagonists, and I treat the rich and the poor equally, without any Manichaeism, even though the novel is about stereotypes and prejudices.
Carlos Rodríguez-Martorell is a New York journalist and book reviewer.