Fiction, Reviews

Her Hidden Life by V.S. Alexander (2018)

I bought this novel on a whim in the supermarket (something I hardly ever do) because I was just in the mood to buy a book. It happens. Almost all of the novels on sale were sensational crime, romances, or what was once called ‘chick lit’ and this was the only one that appealed to me. The unusual setting and female protagonist of Her Hidden Life convinced me to buy it.

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Magda Ritter is a young Berliner who ends up working as a ‘taster’ for Hitler – tasting all his food before it is served to him to see if it’s poisoned. Fun times. From the start she states that she is not a supporter of Hitler, and she only ends up working for him because the Reichsbund is the only place where she can get a job, as she has no skills beyond basic housekeeping. Despite not being a Party member, Magda’s well-connected Nazi uncle means that she is accepted for a job, though she has no idea what it is. One day she is picked up in car, and taken to the Berghof, one of Hitler’s countryside retreats.

Here she works as a taster in the kitchen with several other women doing the same job. Her life among the Nazi elite is surprisingly humdrum, despite her random yet frequent chance meetings with Eva Braun and her attraction to SS Captain Karl Weber. This is something I noticed throughout the novel – Magda describes everything rather flatly and in a matter of fact way, even when she describes her feelings of love for Karl, and her feelings of hate for Hitler. Her hatred of Hitler only develops once Karl shows her photographs of killing squads and concentration camps; up until that point she expresses little feeling either way and even states that the plight of the Jewish people does not affect her as she doesn’t know anyone who’s Jewish, so she has never thought about. Magda admits she is naive, but that’s an understatement.

Personally I think that while Magda is genuinely horrified by what she learns, most of the impetus for her hatred of Hitler comes from the fact that Karl hates him, and she loves Karl. He is a fictional character inserted into the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, and is alarmingly quick to tell Magda all about it once they get together. Magda then dedicates herself to his cause and develops fantasies of killing Hitler herself, to the point of obsession. From this point on that is all Magda thinks about, in a totally unbelievable way – she doesn’t seem to accept how impossible it would be to murder him without being caught, and she doesn’t depict how he would have always been surrounded by security as well as his most senior ministers and officers. She makes the situation all about her and her love for Karl.

One review I came across on GoodReads made the very good point that everything seems to happen to Magda in the course of the novel, and this sometimes makes it all a bit hard to believe. I have to agree that way too much is crammed into this novel, and its only 384 pages. Not only does Magda meet Hitler on more than one occasion, she also develops a tenuous friendship with Eva Braun, and just happens to meet Claus von Stauffenberg in the woods at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters., which of course would happen in real life! Magda’s experiences are like if you thought of all the key things a person could have gone through in the war, and then made them all happen to one person – working with the Reich elite, meeting Hitler, living in two of his residences, experiencing bombing in Berlin, losing a parent, being sent to a concentration camp (really), being in Berlin again and being raped by Russian soldiers, oh and then ending up in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945. By that point I was incredulous.

I think when I realised that Magda was being sent to a camp did I give up believing in any of it. After the 20th July plot Karl flees and Magda is suspected of being involved. An anonymous Colonel seems to hate her for some reason, and so he accuses her and gets her shipped off to Bromberg-Ost. Luckily Magda only has to endure two days of work before she gets an officer to believe that she worked for Hitler, and he gets her out, and she returns to her work at the Berghof. Lucky girl! If only it was that easy!

This section of the book really got to me. By this point Magda has heard about the camps, but still has very limited knowledge and doesn’t know about the gas chambers. She describes her arrival and processing, and that she is told “All work was to be completed in the name of the Reich, for ‘work makes you free’.” This is of course a heavy handed reference to the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ emblazoned over the gate to Auschwitz and several other camps, and I found it in very poor taste and completely inappropriate and disrespectful; even if Magda is supposed to be ignorant of the use of the slogan. I found lots of small moments like this throughout the book that were just not appropriate. Like the fact that Magda is sent to a camp, but manages to get out by dropping the fact that she works for Hitler. While there she befriends two women, one of whom disappears during her stay, and another who is Jewish. She worries about them as she leaves but doesn’t think about them again. Similarly she abandons her friend and her friend’s family, after they have been raped by Russian soldiers in Berlin, so that she can seek the safety of Hitler’s bunker – she had been invited but up until that point refused to go. Again she briefly worries about the women she has left behind, but then they disappear from her thoughts.

After reading a bit about the author V.S. Alexander, and particularly this blog post about writing the book, I realised that while he made a point of researching the historical material, he clearly has no idea how to write about these subjects. I’m no historian but I felt like even I could write about these things with a little more sensitivity and understanding. Alexander also states that he was inspired by the story of Margot Woelk, a woman who actually was a taster for Hitler, and decided to tell her story finally in her 90s. I read this article about Margot Woelk and realised just how much of her story is used in Her Hidden Life – but also how the point was missed, and the novel is made into some kind of sweeping romance about Magda fulfilling Karl’s dream and then trying to redeem herself by telling her story. In fact, the back cover copy asks the reader to “lose yourself in this sweeping, heroic love story fraught with danger.” Because that was what life was like during World War II.

Perhaps worst of all is Magda’s time spent in Hitler’s bunker at the end of the war. This setting is unique and nuanced, and should be handled carefully, and V.S. Alexander is frankly not qualified to do this. I cringed at the scenes where Magda encounters Magda Goebbels and her children – she even goes into the room after the children are dead. I don’t what the author was thinking. He even portrays Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries who has written about her experiences, and makes it seem like she is dedicated to the Fuhrer. And then misspells her name when he credits her book at the end (a book which in part inspired the incredible film Downfall, which will give you a much more accurate look at life in the bunker).

The point is that many of the events depicted in this novel happened to real people, and so you can’t just write about them as if they are juicy drama. Even though Magda experiences a camp and being raped, the writing never conveys how awful things are. After the failed assassination attempt she is arrested because the Colonel has a vendetta against her – and then when this is reversed she is able to return to her work in the Berghof. But in reality, as the wife of a conspirator she would have either been sent to a camp and kept there, or would have been executed immediately. Instead, in this novel, she just carries on working for Hitler. There is only a fleeting mention of Von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators, even though they would have been imprisoned and executed. My point is that even though Magda sees the camps firsthand, and sees how people are suffering in Berlin, the cold ruthlessness of Hitler and the Nazis is never really conveyed. Their obsessive hatred of Jewish people and all the others they persecuted is never shown. Instead the author uses them as pantomime villains for his dramatic heroine to dance around.

I have had a rant at my husband about this book and I think I could probably rant here even more – but I’m going to stop there for fear of driving away any readers who are still here… I hope I have managed to convey my issues with this book without just rambling.

If you do want to read novels about World War II, there are so many others that do a much better job than Her Hidden Life – novels that respect the tragedy and the people who suffered, who appropriately explore what really happened. This is not one of those novels unfortunately.

*

Published as The Taster by Kensington Publishing in the US; and by Avon, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the UK. I read the Avon paperback, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

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(image: goodreads.com)

As some regular readers may know, I absolutely love Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, and re-read it in 2017 (post here). For some reason this remained the only book of his I had read for some time. I bought a copy of Little Man, What Now? a while ago, I actually can’t remember when, but it sat on my shelf unread. I don’t know why. Luckily, I recently decided to actually look at my unread books instead of buying new ones – and I landed on this novel. I have a lovely Melville House paperback and I was pleased with myself for finally choosing to read it.

One of the things I love about Fallada’s writing is his uncanny realism. Even though I read his work in translation and the language can sometimes sound a little stilted, Fallada just seems to have a knack for making everything in his work seem utterly true to life and utterly real. He makes of a point of making his characters believable, of making their lives ring true. Little Man, What Now? was published in 1932, at the height (or perhaps the depths) of a recession, precipitated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. As Philip Brady discusses in the Afterword to the Melville House edition I read, unemployment was at a record high in Germany, and Fallada, like many others, felt the strain of the recession on himself and his family. Like his main character, the ‘little man’ Johannes Pinneberg, Fallada had a wife and young son. The novel is a sort of statement of protest, an examination of the daily hardships of living with just enough money to get by, but never really enough, and knowing that what little you do have could be so easily lost. The fact that the novel was so hugely successful on publication shows just how much it struck a chord with people – it showed them their own lives, their own suffering, and exposed the deep injustices of life ‘just above the bread line’, as Brady puts it in the Afterword.

At the opening of the novel Pinneberg and Lammchen (a pet name meaning something like ‘little lamb’) find themselves expecting a child, unexpectedly, and quickly get married. They must find their own place to live, and from there we follow their ups and downs as a married couple. They have several different flats, and eventually move to Berlin, where Pinneberg gets a job as a salesman in a department store. As with his previous job as a clerk at a grain company, at the department store we see the competitiveness and pettiness of the employees and management, the desperation for success – or at least to keep the job – and the bureaucracy with which the white collar workers must contend. Pinneberg and Lammchen must count every pfennig and every mark, and make his salary stretch as far as they can. Their discussions about their minimal finances, and Lammchen’s very precise shopping list, should not be interesting, but Fallada fills them with such a sense of urgency, of desire and desperation, that as a reader you are completely engaged and entertained, and you care so, so much about these two characters. I think that is Fallada’s gift – to make the most ordinary, ‘little’, people seem like the most important people in the world, to make the reader care about the minutiae of their lives. The fact that Lammchen is pregnant makes their situation all the more desperate, and your emotions are increasingly ravaged as she nears the birth. Pinneberg’s anxiety, fear, and joy are all rolled together in a wonderfully vivid sequence in which he waits to hear of the birth of his child – he is not allowed to go with Lammchen into the ward and must ring the hospital for an update. It is yet another area of his life where he has almost no control over anything, and he switches between excitement, fear, and intrusive thoughts of what might happen if something goes wrong and he never sees Lammchen again. The fragility of their lives is palpable.

It’s funny – the plot of Little Man, What Now? is in some ways riveting, with the couple’s ups and downs; but it is also completely mundane and ordinary. And yet when you are reading the novel, you are never bored, you never wish for ‘something’ to happen. You are right there in the moment with Pinneberg and Lammchen, observing their hardships and struggles, and their little moments of happiness. Fallada goes between straight narration and a kind of free indirect speech, and then into moments where the narration speaks to the characters, in such a way that you are completely wrapped up in the story and feel like you know exactly what the characters are going through. It is simply masterful.

I can’t say I know a huge amount about Germany in 1932 beyond the basics, but I feel like Little Man, What Now? has given me a sort of snapshot. There are creeping shadows of what is to come throughout the novel, as Pinneberg encounters Nazis and casual anti-Semitism, and I couldn’t help but wonder what becomes of him and Lammchen, and their son, when the war comes. In theory they could remain in Berlin, or at least in Germany, as they are not Jewish or a member of any other group that the Nazis persecuted. But they would have even less money, even fewer prospects. The novel ends on a small hopeful note, but overall the picture is far from rosy. I can’t help thinking about the time after the end of the novel. The Epilogue is entitled ‘Life Goes On’, and it certainly does, but one would hope things improve for Pinneberg, Lammchen, and the little Shrimp – their affectionate nickname for their son.

I personally don’t know anyone else who has read and loved Fallada, and I worry that he might be an acquired taste, but I will certainly be reading more of his work – in fact I have a copy of his monster novel Wolf Among Wolves on my shelf. All 905 pages of it.

*

First published by Rowohlt in Germany in 1932. I read the 2009 US Melville House edition, pictured above.

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Tales of Survival: A Woman in Berlin and Gone to Ground

I decided to write about both these books in one post for several reasons. They share obvious themes for one, and they complement each other in that one is written by a free German woman, an ‘ordinary citizen’, and the other is written by a Jewish German woman who spent the war in hiding. They have the same setting and certain things in common, but they are two distinct stories and that must be acknowledged and appreciated by the reader – though they can be compared.

They are very individual stories. Other women in similar circumstances will have had completely different experiences, for better or worse. In some ways these two women were lucky – they were not imprisoned or sent to the camps, and they survived the war. But they were deeply unfortunate to be Berliners at that time. They both suffered for it enormously.

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First let’s talk about A Woman in Berlin. It was written and published anonymously, though some have identified the author as journalist Marta Hillers. I’m not sure if Hillers ever confirmed this herself, and honestly it doesn’t matter too much to me. The author wanted to be anonymous, to depict a ‘snapshot’ of her experience rather than to talk about herself.

The point is that the author is an ordinary woman, but in some ways she is extraordinary. When her diary starts on 20th April 1945, she has already lived through years of war and her fiance has gone to the front. She begins her diary because she knows, somehow, that she is now living through history.

I have called her extraordinary largely because of her personal strength. She loses more or less everything and yet she does not break down or give up – she always carries on. She see people around her, some of whom she knows well, either give in to despair or be arrested and disappear. Looking back on the book it is clear she is living in a state of depression and trauma, forcing herself to carry on.

When A Woman in Berlin was first published in German in 1953, it was ‘ignored or reviled’, largely because of its depiction of rape. The author and almost every other woman in the book is raped at least once by Soviet soldiers, and no one in Germany at the time wanted to know about this. The book was published in America in 1954, and it seems that non-German audiences were more receptive. As time has passed both German and non-German readers have come to understand and see that the painful reality of what happened to these women must be acknowledged. Reading about these assaults is horrifying, but the women prove that you can live on after something like that and that your world does not have to end. This is partly because life goes on regardless, but also because it must. The author and her fellow women see that if they do not carry on things will only get worse.

It is difficult to explain what it is really like to read A Woman in Berlin; I can only say that it was one of the most intense and emotional books I have ever read. The writing is clear and pragmatic, but still lyrical and full of beauty where it can be found. Gone to Ground shares this trait – the author seeks out life and beauty where she can.

Marie Jalowicz was a German Jew living in Berlin when the War began. She carried out forced labour at the Siemens factory until 1941 when she realised that her situation was too precarious. When some post was delivered to her she told the postman that her ‘neighbour’ Marie had been deported. Unsurprised by this the postman noted that she had ‘gone east’ and that was that. Marie then took on the identity of a non-Jewish friend, including forged papers, and lived as a ‘U-boat’ – one of 1700 Jews who lived in hiding in Berlin during the War.

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Marie Jalowicz in the 1940s (image: timesofisrael.com)

Her story is incredible, and I was overawed by her bravery and resilience. She stays with friends and colleagues, acquaintances, really anyone who will take her in and not report her, and she has to move every few days and weeks. There is a huge cast of supporting characters who help her along the way, some more remarkable than others but all of them literal life-savers. Marie is forced to take risks and more than once she is just a knife’s edge away from being discovered. This makes reading Gone to Ground and intense and exciting experience, but also very emotional. Marie loses both her parents early on, and everyone she know seems to be desperate in one way or another. Too afraid to write anything down, she keeps a mental diary of things to remember and as a way to process everything that happens to her.

Her story is a mixture of life threatening adventure and the mundanity of being in hiding. She is unemployed and so must either keep busy at home (where sometimes she must stay in a single room to avoid detection) or walk the streets of Berlin from morning til night. More than once she has to repel the advances of men offering her help in return for sexual favours, though one a few occasions she decides to give in rather than face the Gestapo. Similar to the anonymous woman she realises that it is sometimes better not to fight in order to live.

At the very end of the book the Soviet soldiers arrive in Berlin. At this point she is staying with the non-Jewish friend under whose identity she has been living, and they are both raped. Marie is very matter of fact about the whole thing and does not involve her emotions, even when she hears her friend screaming. She reasons that this is still preferable to being sent to a concentration camp. Despite this it is still utterly horrifying.

Gone to Ground was put together by Marie’s son Hermann. He knew his mother had a remarkable story about the War and towards the end of her life he persuaded her to record her story on several tapes. In the Afterword he writes about this experience and how he reacted to his mother’s story. He writes that she remembers everything.

I would highly recommend these books to anyone interested in life in Berlin during the Second World War. They are unforgettable books that remind us of the experience of the War outside of the Holocaust itself, and that even those that were not persecuted by the Nazis also suffered terrible experiences.

The only thing I must say is that they are not ‘easy’ and will have an emotional toll. But they are more than worth it.

*

I read the 2005 Virago paperback edition of A Woman in Berlin and the 2016 Clerkenwell Press/Serpent’s Tail paperback edition of Gone to Ground (both pictured above).

Purchase A Woman in Berlin from Foyles and Wordery.

Purchase Gone to Ground from Foyles and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

City of Women by David Gillham (2013)

Penguin 2013 paperback edition. Image: goodreads.com - I love the red on this cover!

Penguin 2013 paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

Having read Alone in Berlin, and a biography of Hans Fallada (the amazing More Lives Than One), I came to read City of Women with some idea of the world I was stepping into. A world filled with conflicts, both political and social but also psychological, as ordinary Germans dealt with the often devastating effects of World War II on their lives. But of course I could never understand that world because I have not lived within it – the world of a German civilian in Berlin during World War II, in 1943 specifically, when Germany was edging towards failure. Fallada’s Berliners are grey and harried but still resilient and utterly determined; characters of this type appear in City of Women, some so similar they could have been Fallada’s (Egon and Ericha especially), but there is also great originality at work here.

Sigrid Schroder is a war wife, her husband Kaspar fighting on the Eastern Front. Sigrid is lumbered with not only a global conflict on her doorstep and an absent husband, but also with sharing a flat with his grumpy and often vindictive mother, who blames Sigrid for almost everything. She and the other older women in their building are of another generation to Sigrid, and it shows. They remember the Kaiser and how it ‘used to be’; and they are not willing to risk their routines and comforts for anyone. Mother Schroder is belligerent and angry, angry that her husband is dead and her son is away fighting, and all she is left with are furtive hours spent listening to illegal BBC broadcasts and a daughter-in-law she wishes she had never met. She is patriotic to the point of blindness, and yet she listens to the British broadcasts to try and find out if the news of the war that she hears from the Party (of course she is a member) is really true. A strange mix of staid belief and terrifying doubt, shot through with bitterness – Mother Schroder is no easy flatmate for Sigrid.

Much of this book is about what it means for Sigrid to be ‘Frau Schroder’ and the life she is supposed to be living, as opposed to the one she really has. She has a lover she longs for, long gone, her biggest secret; and she soon gets entangled in a side of the Home Front she never knew existed – protecting and hiding the people that the Gestapo and the Party would sooner shoot than look at. These people are of course mainly Jews, and it forces Sigrid to question the values of her society. What have these people ever done wrong? Not only the men, but the women, only housewives, and their children? Childless herself (another thing Mother Schroder blames her for) and married to a man absent from her both physically and emotionally, Sigrid cannot bring herself to let families be destroyed needlessly.

A Berlin hotel destroyed by Allied bombs, 1943. Image: potsdamer-platz.org

A Berlin hotel destroyed by Allied bombs, 1943 (image: potsdamer-platz.org)

She is an interesting character. At times meek and afraid, and at other times sharply determined and brave, with both reluctantly domestic and desperately reckless sides to her personality. She says Yes and No to Mother Schroder, but also has vitriolic arguments with her; she is pandering to the Frau Obersturmfuhrer across the hall (a woman who defines herself by her husband’s rank – who becomes interesting later in the book), but unafraid to make secret drops and transport documents. She is also unafraid to show passion, something showcased spectacularly when she and her lover Egon have rather fumbling, urgent sex in a seat in the mezzanine of the cinema. As well as tension and risk, this novel is also dripping with sexuality. Everyone seems to be at it, and if they are not they are trying to get it. The feeling of desperation throughout Berlin extends not only to safety and missing loved ones, but also to a desire for closeness and reassurance; and a few minutes to forget the reality of one’s life and escape into pleasure. It is sometimes graphic but never gratuitous, and I’m sure even the most judgemental of us could understand how circumstances drive actions.

City of Women does not have the most groundbreaking premise – it can be found is several other books I’m sure – but it is filled with intriguing original characters that feel entirely real, and twists I never expected. Gillham’s writing creates atmosphere and mood like few others’, and I was right there with Sigrid the whole time. I was moved and shocked, gripped and engaged, and I’m so glad I read this novel.

*

Published by Penguin UK in September 2013.

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