Interview with Malve von Hassell, Tapestry Of My Mother’s Life

Short Bio: Malve von Hassell was born in Italy and spent part of her childhood in Belgium and Germany before moving to the United States. She is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the New School for Social Research. Working as an independent scholar ( website-

Malve von Hassell
  1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Complicated, passionate, open

2. The title Tapestry Of My Mother’s Life suggests a rich and intricate narrative. How did you come up with this title, and how does it reflect the themes and structure of the book?

In my parents’ room, there was a wall hanging above their bed, stitched with wool in warm earthen colors, a portion of it incomplete.  When I was a little girl, my mother told me that a girl from India had worked on it for her wedding trousseau until the day of her wedding.  When I began to think about telling my mother’s story, this wall hanging, which at that point was already badly faded and beginning to fall apart, became a metaphor for her life and for my understanding of it, a story that was destined never to be finished.  I always loved this wall hanging, and it helped to reconcile me to all the aspects of my mother’s life that continue to be elusive and unknown.   

The title also reflects one of my mother’s central characteristics, that is, her storytelling. She wove entire worlds with her words and her enthusiasm. These stories shifted and changed over time; many of them were just tantalizing fragments. They became part of my image of my mother, a veritable tapestry of her life.

3. Your book is a biographical account of your mother’s experiences during the tumultuous period of the 1930s in Germany. What motivated you to explore her life and share it with the world?

To begin with, I wanted to provide a portrait of my mother so that in the years to come my son and my nephews would be able to learn more about her life and to understand how it connects to their own lives. I wanted to honor her. The longer I worked on it, the more I began to see that my mother’s experiences and the way in which she came to terms with them had universal relevance. While the experiences differ, many individuals of parents who have had traumatic life experiences struggle with the impact of these experiences. The term for this is transgenerational trauma.

Ultimately, I wrote this book for people interested in reading personal stories about women coming of age in the 1930s and living through World War II. I wrote it especially for all those who try to understand the various traumas their own parents may have experienced and how those traumas have impacted their relationships. 

I felt strongly about portraying the entirety of my mother’s life. I wanted to show where she came from, what ‘tools’ she had to meet the extraordinary challenges of the war years and its aftermath, and how she rebuilt and developed in the subsequent years. I did not want to reduce the account of her life to the years under the Nazi regime, however, impactful those years were.

4. The backdrop of the Nazi regime plays a significant role in your mother’s story. How did you approach weaving historical events into the personal narrative while maintaining the focus on her individual journey?

Part of my family’s history involves a more immediate relationship to the Nazi regime in the sense that my paternal grandfather was a prominent member of the resistance movement. Writing about my grandfather, for instance, would have demanded a different approach; his role in the resistance would have occupied center stage. Meanwhile, my mother’s story was that of an ordinary individual thrown into a challenging set of circumstances and trying to survive while not losing her sense of self. Thus, I concentrated on those elements that impacted her directly to illustrate how she managed to navigate through an increasingly challenging and treacherous terrain. The best analogy for this approach would be the way in which anthropologists create life histories of individuals. Such life histories focus predominantly on the perspective of the given individual rather than on a more widely framed analysis of the culture and society within which that individual lived.

5. Your mother’s journey took her from Germany to America. How did this geographical transition shape her and, by extension, your own upbringing and identity?

For all of us, after an initial adjustment period, our relocation to America because of my father’s work was like a breath of fresh air. To use a trite term, we felt liberated. We were free to reinvent ourselves and to create a new existence here where nobody expected us to be bound by familiar patterns of behavior. My mother quickly discovered a wealth of opportunities.  Her successful transition into a career as an art reporter in her later years would not have been possible in Germany. My father, my brothers, and I all in different ways discovered new possibilities. We no longer had to contend with a set of expectations that had followed us around in Germany like shackles.

6. The role of memory is a central theme in your book. How did you navigate the complexities of reconstructing your mother’s memories and experiences while acknowledging the gaps and distortions that naturally occur over time?

For the second generation of people who have lived through the Nazi era and World War II, there are profound challenges in coming to terms with the fragmented stories handed down and the veil of silence that hovers over many aspects. The retelling of Christa’s life focuses on the role of memory and its impact on subsequent generations. I wanted to shed light on the process whereby children learn about their parents’ lives during extraordinary times and the ways in which a second generation seeks to come to terms with the inherited shadows of the past.

In my mother’s case, memory became both a medium for sharing experiences and a way to disguise them. While enchanting us with her stories, my mother was a master at reconstructing memories while pulling a veil over those elements that were unbearable. Only in looking back did I begin to understand how much of this was a performance art, blurring the lines between real and constructed memories, just like the visitor to the opera cannot and may not even want to distinguish between Bajazzo the clown and the genuine human being hidden behind a mask.

The author Edmund de Waal also addressed this challenge in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes. It is a multi-generational account of the history of a prominent Jewish family, originally from Odessa, Ukraine, and affected by the Holocaust. Thus, the topic is different, and he focuses on an entire family rather than presenting a biography of one person.  As I have attempted, de Waal explores the role of memory and silence between generations and the difficulty in telling the story since it involves digging into the private lives of those who have gone before us. He tries to piece together a complete story in the face of a vacuum of silence by surviving members and the fact that there are hardly any remaining physical traces of their former lives.

7. The book is also available in German, titled Bildteppich eines Lebens: Erzählungen meiner Mutter, Fragmente und Schweigen. How does the translation process affect the nuances and emotional resonance of the narrative?”

When I decided to write about my mother’s life, there was no question in my mind that I would do so in English. While German was my first language, I have lived in the US and worked with English most of my life.  Writing in English allowed me a degree of distance and detachment from my family’s history; I could relax and write about complex issues without getting overwhelmed. I eventually decided to translate the book into German because of requests by German readers. It was an interesting experience and illustrated once again that I was right to begin this project in English. I found writing in German too close and too raw; I had a hard time writing openly and with a degree of detachment.

8. Your book The Amber Crane has been awarded the Coffee Pot Book Club Silver Medal for Young Adult Historical Fiction and Fantasy. How do you approach writing for young adult readers, and what themes or messages do you hope they take away from The Amber Crane?

I came to love reading and history through a range of historical fiction books from my parents. I wanted to write about historical periods and countries that young people in this country would generally not be familiar with.  I thought that for young readers it might be interesting to read a story involving time-slip from the past into the future rather than the more common direction of travel from the present into the past.  In The Amber Crane, I wanted to convey the magical beauty and richness of the world of amber as well as the traditions of the craft guilds in Europe, dating back to medieval times. The region featured in the book is rarely addressed in fiction, much less in young adult literature. It is a historical region called Pomerania, today a part of Poland, along the Baltic Sea.  Meanwhile, the device of time-slip across 300 years between one war and another, that is, the Thirty Years’ War and World War II, helped me to show some of the painful parallels in the experience of war.

9. Alina: A Song for the Telling is set in Jerusalem during the time of the crusades. What inspired you to write about this particular era, and how did you approach the research required to authentically portray the historical context?

I literally stumbled over the historical character of Stephen de Sancerre. While we don’t know much of his life, he was evidently an intriguing and remarkable individual who in some respects seemed far ahead of his time, the 12th century.  I decided to create a story around him in which I would try to fill out some of the gaps without diverging too much from the available historical record.  I wanted to tell his story from the perspective of a young woman, an aspiring singer-songwriter of the 12th century. These musicians, the first women composers to have their names recorded in history, were known as trobairitz, that is, the female counterpart to the troubadours. These trobairitz were pioneers in their own right; they were inventive and imaginative writers of lyrics that were often more realistic and incisive than that of their male counterparts. This history of female musicians during the first and second crusades became the foundation for my protagonist, a young woman who actively questions the world around her, even while bound by the conventions of her time.

I approached the research for this as well as for my other historical fiction books as if I was conducting an anthropological study. That means, I researched as much as I could about all aspects of the settings for my stories—food, music, beliefs, clothing, attitudes regarding gender roles, inheritance, and law, to name just some matters that had to be considered.

10. How has your journey as a writer evolved, from historical fiction to children’s literature? How do you approach writing for different audiences and genres?

In truth, it would be wrong to say that my journey as a writer involved an evolution from one genre to another. Throughout my years as a writer, I lurched back and forth from one genre to another. While I was working on academic publications as a cultural anthropologist, I also wrote poetry. I have worked on historical fiction while occasionally addressing myself to children’s books. While I was working on the biography of my mother, I was also beginning to develop a concept for an upcoming work of historical fiction. I confess that the target audience has so far always been secondary. I never set out to write a Young Adult book or a book for younger readers per se. Instead, the starting point always was an event or a character I had fallen in love with. Once I had that, I began the process of framing it for a target audience.  Meanwhile, when I write for different audiences and genres, I try to put myself into the minds of the target audience.  I also sometimes find that editors and authors tend to underestimate their readers’ abilities. Thus, children benefit from being exposed to vocabulary that they might not be familiar with, and young adult readers are perfectly capable of handling complex, difficult, and serious subject matters. We learn and grow by reading challenging texts.

11. Your recent children’s book Turtle Crossing has the potential to resonate with both children and parents. How do you envision parents using this book to initiate conversations about change, moving, and adaptability with their young children

I originally wrote this little story Turtle Crossing for my nephew whose favorite toys included a turtle and a dolphin, appropriately named Flipper. He was upset when he found out that his family was moving to another state. I wanted to create a story that addresses this and shows young children that they are agents in their own lives, even when they feel they are being dragged around by their families. I also wanted to show that they carry some of the solutions to their problems in their own hearts and that the unknown world may contain wondrous opportunities.

12. Letters from the Tooth Fairy is described as a read-aloud picture book for both adults and children. How do you see this book fostering connections and conversations between different generations?

These letters were inspired by my son’s cheeky note in which he informed the tooth fairy that he had lost twenty teeth in one fell swoop and would she please pay up. I couldn’t resist penning a response. This turned into extensive correspondence in response to my son’s many questions. It ended only once the tooth fairy decided to retire to a place where the tooth fairy postal service no longer delivered letters from former clients. In the mornings, I would read the tooth fairy’s letters to my mother over the phone. She laughed and laughed. These were the last pieces of writing I could share with her, and the memory of her reaction is precious to me. When I eventually published them, I envisioned them as a form of entertainment for parents and children when reading together at night. It might also suggest ways in which parents could indulge in their imagination when reading to their children and help to encourage their children to keep asking questions.

13. You’ve translated and edited various works, including your grandfather Ulrich von Hassell’s memoirs. Could you share your experience working on his writings and how it felt to preserve and share his perspective on historical events?

It was a privilege and an honor to be able to work on these writings. My grandfather Ulrich von Hassell, a German diplomat, was a prominent member of the resistance against Hitler.  Between the time of his arrest on July 28, 1944 and his execution on September 8, 1944 there were less than six weeks. Ulrich von Hassell used this time to write his memoirs. Shortly before the end of the war, my father Wolf Ulrich von Hassell retrieved these writings from the prison where my grandfather had been held. Writing under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo, my grandfather filled over 690 pieces of paper and succeeded in creating a colorful and fascinating portrait of the years from 1881 to 1930 that was filled with humor and an astounding ability to recall details and names, a stunning testament to the human spirit. While many of his other writings, including his diaries during WWII, were published, this document, known in the family as his prison memoirs, remained in a drawer in my father’s house.

My father had not had the time or the emotional energy to publish them.  I always felt strongly about these writings and was enormously gratified when my father gave me his permission to begin the work of turning them into a book.  Once I inserted myself into the project and did some of the legwork, my father became more open to it.  Working with him on the many details and footnotes was a way to gain insight not only into my grandfather’s life but also to gain a better understanding of my father’s thoughts at that time and afterwards. 

14. Could you share a particularly challenging or rewarding moment from your writing journey, whether it’s related to research, translating, or crafting your own original narratives?

When I was writing about my mother, I often found myself upset that I hadn’t asked more questions while she was alive. In our family, many subjects were not talked about or only referred to elliptically.

Thus, when I began digging and researching some of the details, I learned something that I found unsettling. It involved the apartment assigned to my mother’s family when they moved to Altenburg in 1939.  My mother was then 15 years old. She always spoke fondly of that apartment, and her initial time in Altenburg was pleasant, especially since her best and life-long friend lived in the same building and attended the same school.

When I researched the address, I discovered that the house had belonged to a renowned Jewish family.  During the night of Kristallnacht, the owner was forced into a truck and taken to Buchenwald, the house ransacked, and the other family members brutally beaten. He was released after agreeing to cede title to his house to the NSDAP. The owner and his wife and several children managed to reach Holland in the hopes of eventually traveling to the US. However, in 1943, they were discovered and deported to Auschwitz.

I don’t know whether my mother was aware of this. Meanwhile, given my mother’s reticence in talking about many aspects of the time, it is possible that she eventually found out who had originally lived in the building that became her home in Altenburg and chose to relegate this to the deep recesses of her mind just as she didn’t talk about the loss of her father, her brother, or her first husband or many of her friends other than by elliptical references.

15. Looking ahead, do you have any upcoming projects or ideas that you’d like to share with your readers, and how do you envision continuing to explore the intersections of history, fantasy, and imagination in your future works

I am currently working on a historical fiction book about Adela of Blois, the daughter of William the Conqueror. She was a remarkable woman who ruled her husband’s vast holdings in Blois and Chartres for years while he was away during the first crusade and then after his death. She was the daughter of a king of England (William I), the sister of two others (William II and Henry I, and the mother of a king Stephen I. Well read, highly educated, fluent in several languages, she had a reputation as a trustworthy confidant of her husband and a good ruler in his absence.

In my book, I want to bring her to life while staying within the parameters set forth by our historical knowledge. Thus, it is a difficult balancing act between my imagination and historical fact. I am using the device of several other main characters whose lives intersect with that of Adela and from whose perspective the reader learns more about this remarkable woman.

16. Your book Tapestry Of My Mother’s Life offers a unique lens into history and human experience. What advice do you have for other authors who wish to explore the lives of their family members and bring those stories to life in a meaningful way?

It is not easy to write about members of your own family. The bonds are manifold and complex, and putting this down on paper involves a complicated journey through one’s own emotional repertoire. For me, the process of writing about my mother became in every sense of the word a labor of love. As I was following my mother’s life path, I gained a better understanding of my conflicted relationship with her and came to appreciate her all the more. 

When I was a child and young adult, I often felt insignificant and even resentful about the large emotional space my parents, with their powerful and disturbing experiences during the Nazi years and World War II, occupied in my mind, leaving little room for anything else. It took me a long time to figure out that none of this defined me and that I was free to develop and shape my life as I saw fit and to create my own footprints, so to speak.

For me the process of writing about family members involved dealing with the shadows of the past which came in triplicate.  First, there were the stories of loss of home and deprivation as well as the deaths of my two grandfathers and others. Then, as we got older, we began to absorb the full extent of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis and the ensuing devastation in World War II. Finally, these shadows acquired another layer in that in the first decades after World War II, family members of people who had played a role in the resistance against Hitler met with skepticism, disdain, and even outright discrimination at various levels in a Germany still uncertainly finding its way in the post Nazi era. Children were harassed at school and derided as sons and daughters of traitors, while adults found their careers stymied. This gradually shifted to open and honest reflections about the past in public discourse, the media, and literature, as well as increasing attempts to remember and honor the victims of the Nazi years as wells as the lives of those who had tried to fight against the regime. This new attention, combined with a flood of new publications as well as diverse public events, created another kind of dilemma for me—I wanted to step away from it all.

When writing about my mother, I had to confront some of these shadows as well as the fact, never acknowledged as clearly by me until I embarked on this project, of the nearly impenetrable layers of silence. 

Writing about your family members is profoundly challenging and very rewarding, a journey of acknowledgment, appreciation, and even liberation.

“Tapestry Of My Mother’s Life” is the ultimate page-turner you’ve been waiting for! Immerse yourself in a gripping narrative set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. Available now on Amazon, this riveting biography will keep you on the edge of your seat.

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