1. Letter writing is central to Fifteen Words. To add a greater authenticity to the novel, nearly all of the letters in it are near verbatim transcriptions of genuine ones found in archives from both World Wars.
2. The first draft of the novel was completed in less than four months. This was mainly because I was steeped in all the stories from the research I had already done into my family history, which had unearthed all manner of letters, documents, photos and tape recordings, before starting the book.
3. There are many incredible events depicted in the book, some horrific, some darkly comic. For example, the case of the German POW who sabotaged the Russian factory by urinating into the machines. One day this method backfires and the POW receives an electric shock from the machine, leaving the poor man with only half a penis. It sounds like fiction, but it is true!
4. Other decidedly non-comic events, which are also true, include the German POWs being forced to march around Breslau, each man carrying his sixty kilo army backpack, for seven days and nights, without sleep, without rest, and without being allowed to perform the most basic of human rights. They had no choice but to urinate and shit themselves as they marched. When anyone fell down from exhaustion, they were shot dead. Similarly, in the book Max acquires a pair of pliers to remove the dead frostbitten fingers from his patients to avoid gangrene spreading. As incredible as this sounds, it is entirely true.
5. During World War Two, it is true that German POWs in Soviet labour camps were only allowed to send letters home if they contained a maximum of fifteen words. In the novel Max struggles to express everything he wants to tell Erika with such limitations. He enlists the help of his more artistic friends to help him, but finally in despair he writes something damning. It becomes one of the themes of the book: how we can say so much in so few words to beautiful or destructive effect.
– Monika Jephcott Thomas
Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max – whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.
But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realised; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?
Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.
Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, north-west Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner Jeff she established the Academy of Play & Child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty percent of children who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002.