World War II wrought unspeakable atrocities as well as heroes to fight the odds and overcome them. Here’s a sampling of both:
— Marianne Cohn (1922 – 1944), underground activist for the Resistance. Marianne helped to smuggle groups of Jewish children over the Nazi-occupied French border into Switzerland. She was arrested in May 1944 while traveling with 28 children, ages 4-15. She and the children were sent to a hotel-turned-Gestapo prison. With help from Annemasse’s mayor, Jean Deffaugt, she freed all but eleven. Though tortured relentlessly, she never betrayed their identities, and even rejected the mayor’s rescue attempt for herself, for fear of endangering the kids. Despite her murder in July, 1944, all 28 children survived.
- Last letters from the Holocaust, 1944
- Brief bio, GDW-Berlin
- Encyclopedia Britannica—Note the poem Marianne wrote
— Martha Gellhorn (1908 – 1998), American journalist, novelist, one of the first female war correspondents, and third wife of Ernest Hemingway (1940-45). As a writer for Collier’s magazine, she contacted military authorities to obtain permission—as a female— to travel to mainland Europe to cover the Allied advance. She stowed away on a hospital ship in order to reach France.
— Oradour-sur-Glane, martyred village. Only four days after the June 6, 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy (D-Day), German troops entered this small, rural French community. Supposedly squashing the Resistance, they rounded up men into barns, herded women and children into the church, and locked them in. Soldiers set fire and threw grenades, killing 642 men, women, and children. Then they burned the village. Only a handful of villagers survived—one of them a child who’d been trained to run and hide. The untouched ruins still exist today as a national memorial.
- This article has more current photos of the village ruins, a photo of a survivor, and a map
- U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum article
- Encyclopedia Britannica
— Nazi euthanasia programs (AKA Aktion T4). In 1939, Hitler ordered his so-called “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled to eliminate “life unworthy of life.” This was accomplished through gassing, starvation, or lethal injection. About 200,000 were killed, many with Down syndrome.
- Civil rights timeline in the history of Down syndrome
- Breakpoint—Eric Metaxas article about French president Charles de Gaulle’s daughter Anne, who had Down syndrome
Author Liz Tolsma has deftly woven these scenarios into her most recent World War II novel, A Picture of Hope (2021) as part of the Heroines of WWII series.
Besides seven WWII novels, Liz has penned the following:
- 4 novels in the True Colors series
- The Amish Widow’s New Love, a Love Inspired novel
- Several stories in romance anthologies
- Slashed Canvas, part of the Ever After mysteries based on fairy tales
- Her most recent release, A Promise Engraved, set in1836 San Antonio during the time of the Alamo, part of the Doors to the Past series
During Liz’s last visit here, we discussed The Pink Bonnet (True Colors).
Back Cover Blurb
A Photojournalist Risks Her Life to Save a Very Special Child
Full of intrigue, adventure, and romance, this series celebrates the unsung heroes—the heroines of WWII.
Journalist Nellie Wilkerson has spent the bulk of the war in London, photographing mothers standing in milk lines—and she’s bored. She jumps at the chance to go to France, where the Allied forces recently landed. There she enlists Jean-Paul Breslau of the French underground to take her to the frontlines. On the journey, they stumble upon a great tragedy, leaving a girl with special needs being orphaned.
Can Nellie and Jean-Paul see the child to a safe haven while being pursued by the Nazis, who are pressed by the advancing Allies and determined to destroy all they can before they flee?
Chicago Tribune photographer Nellie Wilkerson and her fellow journalists aren’t allowed in France as women reporters. That’s a man’s job. But she longs to be the eyes and ears of the American women. And to make a name for herself in photographic journalism.
So after the Battle of Normandy (June 6, 1944), Nellie proves her mettle by stowing away on the Prague headed to Normandy across the English Channel. She wheedles her way on as a journalist, poses as a nurse, then disembarks the ship in France. She finds herself face to face with the devastation on Omaha Beach.
Instead of returning to Southhampton on the hospital ship, she stays in France where she eventually meets Jean-Paul Breslau. America may have scored a victory at Normandy, but the Nazis still run rampant over France. Nellie and Jean-Paul must maneuver through town after town encountering horrific, life-threatening situations.
Four-year-old Claire is the only survivor in a village that has just been massacred and burned. She has Down syndrome—termed Mongoloid in the 1940s. When Nellie and Jean-Paul discover little Claire all alone, new priorities surface. They must get her to safety at the convent, hours away.
“All I see is evil, as thick and as common as the air we breathe.
It doesn’t matter where we are, whether France, the United States, or Germany, it’s there.
But when I peer into Velma’s eyes or Claire’s or Leo’s or Albert’s,
then what I see is goodness and pureness.
An innocence that must be protected at all costs.” — Nellie
Claire would have been prey to Hitler’s so-called mercy killings.
At the convent, Nellie and Jean-Paul encounter the faith and hope of nuns who are also risking their lives for the sake of “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Nuns who cling to their faith and their heavenly Father, the One who values each human life.
Here, the narrative incorporates a third point of view with a strong faith element: Sister Maria-Theresa, who has lived at the convent for seven decades.
But even at the convent, troubles compound. The journey is far from over.
Jean-Paul warns Nellie numerous times to stay away from the Germans; her American accent would give her away. But headstrong Nellie doesn’t always listen. Though she’s a strong and brave heroine, her stubbornness and brash behavior put her into dangerous predicaments that could have been avoided if she’d trusted Jean-Paul. But trust is a rare commodity when pursued by Nazis—and miles yet to go.
Join me for some Q & A with Liz Tolsma.
Questions about A Picture of Hope
You’ve written many World War II novels. What inspired you to write about this particular situation near the end of the war, and include a child with Down syndrome?
Liz: This was originally the last book in a three-part series about American women journalists during the war. As I researched what I wanted to write about, I came across an article about an amazing journalist, Martha Gellhorn, who snuck aboard a hospital ship in England, made the crossing to France immediately after D-day, and scooped all the men, including her estranged husband, Ernest Hemingway. Since Barbour’s series is about strong heroines, I knew I’d found her.
So Nellie Wilkerson is based very loosely on Martha Gellhorn. Originally, the book was supposed to include Jewish children who needed to get across the Swiss border. First, though, I needed a picture that could be the picture of hope. I combed through WWII photographic archives and came across a picture of a little boy in front of a burned-out church. There was my picture.
As I wrote the scene, though, it wasn’t a Jewish child I saw but a little girl with pigtails who clearly had Down syndrome. My heart went out to her, being chased by the Nazis because she wasn’t perfect. As the mother of a now-grown child with both intellectual and physical disabilities, I knew the time had come to write a story about what life with a disabled child is like. It was time to share my heart.
Which came first—the characters, the plot, the setting, themes, or something else? How did the story develop? What real life parameters were you working with?
Liz: Because the book was part of Barbour Publishing’s Heroines of WWII series, that’s what I started with. A strong woman who could carry the story without outshining the hero. Nellie is bull-headed and strong-willed, but she softens and comes around at the end. My stories really develop as I write. My publisher is used to getting rough outlines from me and knowing that things will probably change quite a bit before all is said and done.
I was working within the parameters of WWII in France, how female journalists were treated, the advance of the Allies, and some other true-to-life events that I don’t want to share because they would be spoilers. It’s always interesting to try to fit the story you have in your head inside real places and events. Sometimes it completely changes the story. That’s the fun I have in writing WWII fiction.
You write from both the hero’s and the heroine’s point of view—Jean-Paul and Nellie. What did you know about your characters at the outset and what did you learn about them during the writing process? Are any of the characters based on people you know or have read about?
Liz: I always have a pretty good idea of who my characters are before I start writing. The trouble is, they have a lot to tell me as I write, some of it contrary to what I believed about them when I started. I’m always surprised by what I learn about them along the way.
I learned so much about Nellie’s background (again, no spoilers) and what made her act and react the way she did. Her back story was super interesting to me, though challenging to write. Nellie, as I mentioned before, is loosely based on Martha Gellhorn.
Along the way, Jean-Paul mentions several members of the French resistance, including Marianne Cohn and Marcel Mangel. They, along with many others, shuttled Jewish children across the border in some very creative ways. We know Marcel better as the mime Marcel Marceau. You can watch some YouTube videos I produced about them on my channel.
Do you prefer writing from the man’s or woman’s perspective? What are the challenges of each, particularly considering each of their roles in a WWII setting?
Liz: I’m a little more comfortable with writing from a woman’s perspective because that’s what I know best, but the more and more I write from a man’s point of view, the easier it gets. Both men and women played very important roles in the war, sometimes for very different reasons. They complemented each other. I don’t write battles, so the men aren’t off fighting, which does make my job easier. I never like reading battle scenes, so I don’t write them.
What kind of research was involved?
Liz: I had to research so much! Martha Gellhorn, how the reporters in Britain learned about D-day, what France is like (this is my Covid book, so no research trip), all about the French resistance and their efforts to get kids into Switzerland, how they managed to do that, what life was like in Switzerland for these refugees, and there are many other things that I had to learn about that I can’t share because they’re spoilers. I’m just thankful for the internet and Google earth since I couldn’t travel. They saved this story!
How would you compare A Picture of Hope to your other WWII novels? How would you compare Nellie to your other heroines?
Liz: This is different because the main danger lies with a little girl. Because of my daughter, this book is extremely personal and very much a story of my heart. I’m passionate about my daughter being treated with dignity and respect, about her being loved like everyone wants to be loved. That is what I hope the readers take away from the book. People with disabilities, no matter how severe, just want to know they are safe and they are loved.
Nellie is quite different from most of mine because of her tough exterior. She has this shell, and she doesn’t want anyone to see her vulnerabilities. Her backstory gives the reader a glimpse into why she’s as tough as nails but with a very soft, gentle heart and spirit.
Can you share what you’re working on now or in the near future?
Liz: I had a novel release on May 1, A Promise Engraved. This is my first dual time novel, and I had fun writing it. It’s for Barbour’s Doors to the Past series. The historical part takes place in Texas at the time of the Alamo. The contemporary part is set in San Antonio and involves a refugee coordinator. The women are separated by almost 200 years but tied together by a mysterious cat’s-eye ring. But will either of them live to see the promise of the ring fulfilled?
I also have a WWII novel releasing from Barbour in December. This one is dual time set in Greece. A young American woman discovers trough a DNA test that she’s Sephardic Jew from Greece, something she never knew. But when she travels there, she may discover long-hidden secrets that were best left buried.
Back to Laura . . .
I first featured Liz on my Journey to Imagination blog in April, 2018, after the release of Melody of the Soul.
On a different note, I’m currently gathering a launch team for my own historical fiction, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this split-time novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. It highlights The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
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Liz Tolsma Bio
Liz Tolsma is a popular speaker and an editor and the owner of the Write Direction Editing. An almost-native Wisconsinite, she resides in a quiet corner of the state with her husband and is the mother of three. Her son proudly serves as a U.S. Marine. They adopted all of their children internationally, and one has special needs. When she gets a few spare minutes, she enjoys reading, relaxing on the front porch, walking, working in her large perennial garden, and camping with her family. Visit her website at www.liztolsma.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter (@LizTolsma), Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest. She is also the host of the Christian Historical Fiction Talk podcast.
Join me next time for a visit with another World War II author, Terri Wangard.
Meanwhile, have you read A Picture of Hope or other WWII novels? What’s a favorite? Answer in the comments below.
I’ve heard good things about “A Picture of Hope!” But also that it was tough to read—from an emotional perspective.
So I imagine the research was tough too. Writing historical fiction isn’t for the faint of heart!
Liz’s writing, research, work ethic and skill always impress me.
Blessings to her and the impact her books have!
You’re right about that! Either writing or reading historical fiction, especially about war times, is not for the faint of heart!
Thanks for having me! Always great to be part of your blog.
Thank YOU! I’m so glad you joined us!
Again, so many connections to discussions in the news today. Such heartbreaking true stories. I love how she takes these horrific events from the past and weaves hope.
Yes, most things would be impossible to read without threads of hope.