Q: Tell me about your childhood.
A: My early childhood is imprinted with the aftermath of the Nazi regime. I was born just after World War II, during a very cold winter when the water pipes froze, there was no coal for heating, and there was hardly any food. When I was born, I already had a sister and a brother, six and seven years older than I. My father had returned the year before, starving and ill, from a prisoner of war camp in Russia. He took a job as a teacher in another city. He was an art teacher and painter.
Q: How did you and your husband decide to start adopting war orphans?
A: My husband, who is a pediatrician, came from a very large family with ten children. Each of us had always dreamed of giving a home to children who didn't have one. I had a son from a first marriage; my husband had none. But we were completely united in wanting to raise children in our lives. When we turned to the adoption agencies, we were told that we had hardly any chance because we were too old (I was forty at that time). We were disappointed, but we resigned ourselves to it. We were happy with each other and we both had professions in which we could be there for children.
Q: How did you first learn about Jeanne and her situation?
A: In April 1996 we got a call from the African Mission in Cologne, which had already placed twins from Rwanda with us the year before. They asked if we would be willing to take on yet another Rwandan orphan. Jeanne, at that time ten years old, came to us with her aunt. Since her aunt could not look after her, Jeanne decided very quickly to stay with us. It wasn't long until Jeanne let us know what she had seen with her own eyes: the murder of her mother and her brother, as well as other horrific acts. Nightmares drove her out of bed at night. As soon as she could speak a little German, she began to tell us about her experiences, mostly to me, because we were very close from the beginning. She said to me later that she had the feeling that she had always known me. How such a thing is possible will probably remain hidden.
Q: What inspired you to tell Jeanne's story in Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You?
A: Jeanne and I had already been discussing it together for four years. The older she became, the more we tried to see her detailed memories in the whole context of the genocide and to draw on other sources, in order to "understand" the connections better.
Q: How involved was Jeanne in the writing process?
A: Jeanne was not directly involved in the writing process, but she was my most important source. I kept asking her questions: how something tasted, how something looked, and how the life of her family and the people of Rwanda had been organized at that time. Jeanne is a relatively matter-of-fact person, with a memory that is clearly above average, so in that respect she was a very reliable witness. It was hard for Jeanne to return to the good memories of her family that, until then, she had split off from herself. To feel what she had lost called up enormous grief in her, which I had to cushion. Sometimes I could only hold her tight, not knowing how to comfort her. Nevertheless, this part of the work was very important. In order to be able to tell the story vividly and suspensefully as a novel, however, I had to unfurl my own powers of imagination and invent truthfully. Jeanne and I complemented each other in a marvelous way. With all that I devised for plot, I ended up being intuitively very close to the reality she experienced. Jeanne checked the finished chapters to give me feedback. My intuitions were sometimes so close to the truth that I would invent something Jeanne had in fact experienced. Some days she would come to me with the manuscript and say, "Mama, today you remembered something that I had forgotten."
Q: What did you wish to accomplish by publishing the book?
A: I want this to be a book against indifference and forgetting. Listeners often cry at my readings. The book allows readers to imagine all dimensions of the genocide, and the resulting closeness the reader feels to Jeanne's character awakens the wish to become more concerned with what happened in Rwanda, perhaps even to become active. In this respect, the book offers a contribution to the politics of peace-in an entirely different way from the many important nonfiction books on the subject that have come onto the market. Only when we allow such an event to enter our feelings will the mechanism of repression be breached. Natural catastrophes appear to move people more strongly than the catastrophes that originate with human beings. Yet humans deploy powers just as destructive. Human catastrophes could perhaps be avoidable if we could deal with the causes and give help in coping with the traumas. It is possible to change the conditions that are the foundation for such catastrophes. The international community must look clearly and not adjust what it sees according to its own interests at the time. Although I think that it is a book outside of any category, I decided to publish it first with a children's publisher because I wish that young people, who have their future before them, would be more intensely aware of the happenings in this world. I do not want them to close their eyes to the constant violations of human rights, and I want to prepare them for a world without military force. With the help of the book, I have the feeling of participating in a kind of network for peace. There is an African saying: When the spider's threads join together, they can hold a lion.
Q: What message do you hope your readers will emerge with after reading Jeanne's story?
A: Life is precious! We must handle it wisely and should never give up.
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