Fifteen years ago, my husband and I backpacked across seven countries in Europe, savoring the culture and charm in each place. When we stepped off the ferryboat called Stefanie and onto the cobblestone streets in Hallstatt, we were completely enamored of the history and quaint beauty in this ancient village. The rugged, snow-capped mountains and pristine lake and the mysterious castle across the water—all of it captured us, and I dreamed about one day writing a story set in this beautiful place marred by evil during World War II.
The magical Hallstättersee with its swans and alpine water, and the other lakes around it, were dustbins of sorts, collecting whatever the Nazis swept into their waters as they fled south from the Allied troops. Schloss Schwansee was inspired by the castle on Hallstättersee called Schloss Grub—the residence of the eccentric salt administrator who wrote in his testament that every fifty years his casket would journey back home. During the war, this estate was used as a Hitler Youth camp.
Much has been written about “ownerless treasure” since Jon and I visited the Salzkammergut, but this story continued to burn inside me until I finally put it on paper—a story about a castle and a treasure, but most of all, about ordinary people who resisted evil in their own, extraordinary way.
I’ve tried to remain as true as possible to the facts and history of Austria during World War II. After the annexation in 1938, the Nazis began expropriating Austrian Jewish property to use for their war preparations. Many Nazi officials kept a portion of these assets for their own pockets.
Almost two hundred thousand Jewish men and women lived in Austria before Hitler annexed their country to Germany. A UPI article from 1938 said that approximately ten thousand Jewish men were arrested in Vienna after Kristallnacht in November. Some died in camps, but many returned home as broken as the glass in their windows. Their Nazi oppressors swore these men to secrecy, threatening their life and the lives of those they loved if they spoke about what happened during their imprisonment. And they were told to leave Austria immediately—a feat made nearly impossible by changing regulations, closed doors, and the money and heirlooms to pay for such a journey being stolen away.
Another article from the 1950s said that the material loss of Austrian Jewry was estimated at more than one billion dollars. Sadly, not many Austrian Jews were left to reclaim their property. By the end of the war, only about five thousand of the Austrian Jewish people remained.
The Nazis were no respecters of age. In 1944, they also raided an orphanage near Lyon and deported all the Jewish children except one refugee girl who was being nursed by a young French aide in her home.
Up north in Berlin is a powerful memorial to the Holocaust. From the outside, this plaza looks like a forest of concrete slabs, dreary and dull, but if you wander into the wide passages between the columns, you discover that it’s something else altogether. The labyrinth of slabs inch closer and closer the farther you walk, deeper and deeper into the ground, until you’re trapped in the darkness. Lost and alone.
At the beginning of 1938, Austria was an independent country prepared to fight Germany. Then almost overnight, without firing a gun, they renamed it Ostmark—Eastern March—fully under Nazi control. The poignant demonstration from these slabs, the gradual loss of Germany’s liberty as people became trapped in Hitler’s web, didn’t occur in Austria. Their takeover was more like the clamp of an animal trap, the sudden snap of jaws that offered no warning and little hope for escape.
And yet, even when there’s no escape in this life, there is hope, I believe, in the One who burns with eternal goodness and light. Hope in an everlasting life through Him. Through this story, I wanted to remember the many who’ve been lost in this life but are not forever gone. The hope that God’s love and justice conquer evil in the end.
Hidden Among the Stars, like all my novels, was written with the help and support of multiple people who are superheroes to me. While I strive to be as accurate as possible with my facts, sometimes I mess up. Any and all errors are my mine alone.
A special thank-you to:
My amazing agent Natasha Kern and friends at Tyndale, including Stephanie Broene, Shaina Turner, Sarah Rische, Karen Watson, Sharon Leavitt, Maggie Rowe, and Maria Eriksen. I have learned so much from each of you and am continually grateful for the opportunity to partner together to publish stories with our shared mission to both entertain and inspire.
My first readers—Michele Heath, Sandra Byrd, Lyn Beroth, Gerrie Mills, and Ann Menke—for being so generous with your time and for blessing me with your wisdom and encouragement. The wonderful ladies in my writers’ group, including Dawn Shipman, Julie Zander, Nicole Miller, and Tracie Heskett. I so look forward to our time together each month and am grateful for every edit and insight along with our laughter.
Cathy Dennis, I thoroughly enjoyed attending a Passover seder with you as we learned more about the Jewish faith and celebrated together our freedom from slavery. Elizabeth Gilbert and the team at my local library for helping me obtain the resources that I needed to write this story. My cousins Josh and Ines Beal for helping me with my many Austrian questions. Josh and Ines had a beautiful baby girl as I finished writing Hidden Among the Stars. Josh and Ella in this novel are completely fictional, but what a pleasant—and perhaps providential—surprise to find out that Josh and Ines named their daughter Ella.
Natalie Perrin and her rock star team with Historical Research Associates in Portland for helping me figure out how to break into an ancient casket and warning me not to tamper with any human remains off the pages of this book. Hundreds of scenarios crowded into my brain as I wrote this novel, but attempting to open a casket myself—you’ll be glad to know that the thought never once crossed my mind!
Cecilia Greaves from the tourism office Tourismusverband Inneres Salzkammergut for graciously answering my questions and counting the number of stone steps as she climbed up to the Hallstatt cemetery. Hagen Schiffler, a violin maker near Salzburg, for tracking down information about Karl Lang, a brilliant violin maker from that era, to craft Luzi’s gift.
Julie Kohl for gifting me with your friendship and faith journey. Authors like Randy Alcorn, Jessica Kelley, and Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener, who’ve wrestled in their writing with the hard questions about suffering and forgiveness. The dear friends who helped me brainstorm the title for this book and who pray for me on those days when I don’t think I can write or edit another word. You know who you are, and your prayers for wisdom and tenacity are exactly what I need to continue on this writing journey.
My family and friends in Mount Vernon, Ohio, who always welcome me home. This small town, with its fabulous Paragraphs Bookstore, is one of my favorite places in the entire world!
My gracious father, Jim Beroth, a lifelong resident of Mount Vernon and regular volunteer on the Kokosing Gap Trail, for not only loving our family well and praying for all of us, but for flying out to Oregon to care for my girls while I was on deadline. Love you, Dad!
My daughters, Karlyn and Kiki, for your inspiration, creativity, and sweet laughter. And my husband, Jon, for exploring Hallstatt with me so many years ago and encouraging me to write this story based on all we learned there. The adventure continues. . . .
And to the Master Creator, who dearly loves and grieves with His children and offers both redemption and the gracious gift of eternal life to each one of us.