Non-Fiction, Reviews

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: A Reading Experience

More than one of my fellow reviewers on GoodReads wrote that reading this book is more than that – you ‘live it’ as well. It is an experience I will never forget. If This is a Woman took me ten days to read, which for me is a long time – but then it is 727 pages (I read the 2016 Abacus paperback). It’s long, but it needs to be long because of the sheer amount of information and individual stories that it tells; Sarah Helm is diligent and respectful, taking time to list names and tell people’s stories. I admire her for taking on the task of writing about Ravensbrück in such a way. She tells the life story of the camp, from its construction and opening in 1939 to its abandonment in 1945 – and its life beyond as a grave and a memorial. It was one of the longest-operating concentration camps in the network, and was significant for two reasons: it was only 56 miles north of Berlin; and it was built specifically to hold women. It was the only camp designated as such.

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2016 Abacus paperback edition

Sarah Helm posits that it was almost a special project for Heinrich Himmler. He ordered it to be created, and he sent very specific orders to his staff there. He visited quite regularly in the early days of the War because the camp was so close to Berlin, and he had organised for his mistress Hedwig Potthast to live nearby. The same doctor, Dr Karl Gebhardt,  who delivered their first child also ordered experiments to be carried out on Ravensbrück inmates.

The experiments are some of the worst things that happened inside the camp. A group of Polish women, and some French, were subjected to unnecessary surgeries on their legs during which bone and muscle was either cut or removed, and bacteria was introduced in the form of foreign objects. Some of them also had their legs injected with poisonous substances such as gangrene gas and petrol. The official reason for these experiments, ordered by Himmler, was to simulate battlefield wounds in order to work out how best to treat them. There was a debate around the drug sulfonamide and whether this could treat such wounds. Hitler’s personal doctor advised that it be given to Reinhard Heydrich after a bomb went off in his car, but Dr Gebhardt advised against it; and Heydrich died. Gebhardt was then ordered to experiment with the drug at Ravensbrück to ‘analyse’ its effectiveness.

The women who suffered through these experiments came to be known as the ‘rabbits’ of the camp, because they had been experimented on like animals. Reading Helm’s book, they were to me some of the bravest women of all in Ravensbrück. Once the experiments were over they lived in constant fear of being executed, as they were living proof of what the doctors has done and what Himmler had ordered. Some of them died whilst still in the camp hospital and some died later; but a large group survived and made a point of telling their stories. There is a brilliant article on them here that I would recommend reading – but I must warn there are also some unpleasant pictures.

The rabbits were telling their stories even while they were still in the camp. For a time they were able to send and receive care packages via the Red Cross and in these they hid letters to and from their families. The information in these letters made its way to a clandestine radio station in England that broadcast to the Polish underground; and the information was passed on from there is the Red Cross and various other parties (this is explored in detail in Part Three of Helm’s book). During the War the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reluctant to do anything about reports they received of such atrocities, but the fact that the rabbits got the information out of the camp was instrumental in bringing their stories to light after the War. You can read more about the role of the ICRC during the War here.

It is easy to get caught up in the individual stories included in If This is a Woman, and there are so many; but Sarah Helm does an excellent job in making sure each gets their space and time, and I can only imagine how carefully she must have had to plan out the structure of the book to make sure everything was included and covered fairly. She conducted a wealth of original research, interviewing the women and visiting both the camp and the homes of those who were there. For years huge amounts of evidence and testimony were held behind the Iron Curtain, so it is only recently that a lot of these stories have come to light in the wider world, such as those of the ‘rabbits’.

If This is a Woman is an exhaustive account of Ravensbrück and the lives of those who were there – either as prisoners or guards. The last section of the book is dedicated to ‘what happened next’ and covers the fates of some of the most notorious SS staff at the camp, such as the commandant Fritz Suhren and the guard Dorothea Binz. The legal process is fascinating, but really the most interesting thing is the way the SS staff behaved once they left the camp, and during the trials. Helm states that when Binz was being led to the gallows she reportedly said “I hope you won’t think that we were all evil people.” You can read more about the female guards here.

The stories of how women were able to leave the camp, as well as where they went afterwards and what happened to them, are just as incredible as their time it. It is not just the events of the War that must be documented and commemorated, but what happened afterwards as well – these events changed the places and the people forever.

To do justice to this book I would have to write an article thousands of words long; so I hope this one will do for now. It is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I hope that others will take on the task of reading If This is a Woman and will learn of these women and what happened to them, and what they went on to do. The book is a seminal work of World War Two literature and I would recommend it to anyone interested in that period. At last these stories can be told, and they should not be ignored or marginalised. At times the reading experience is hard-going, and often intense and incredibly sad, but the overall feeling is that of defiance and determination, and hope for the future. If This is a Woman made me proud to be a woman.

*

Published in 2015 and 2016 by Little, Brown and its imprint Abacus.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

UK hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

UK hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

I know, I know – another book about World War II. Another book about a separated couple, a woman lost… but that is all that The Wind is Not a River shares with the last book I reviewed, City of Women. That and the fact that they are both set in the same year, 1943, when the war was edging towards its end.

A brief summary: John Easley is a journalist, but has snuck onto a military flight to Alaska by pretending to be his brother, recently killed in action. He has been there before to report for National Geographic magazine, but journalists are no longer allowed up to Alaska due to secrecy around the movements of both the US and Japanese armies. Meanwhile his wife Helen waits at home in Seattle. She did not want to him to leave, and told him that if he went back to Alaska he didn’t have to bother coming back. At the start of the book John’s plane has gone down and he has parachuted into the snow of Attu, one of the Aleutian islands. He seems to be the only survivor.

The book opens with one of the many passages of really excellent description, of both the landscape (sometimes cruel, often beautiful) and of the characters’ experiences and inner lives, as well as the bare facts of their situation.

The fog is better than an ally; it is a close, personal friend. It covers his mistakes and spreads its protective wing over him, allowing him to escape detection. But it also separates him from the crew, if indeed anyone else has survived. Then a red flash of memory: an airman’s lapel suddenly blooms like a boutonniere before the man’s head slumps forward and lolls.

I chose that passage almost at random, but that is easy to do if  you are looking for an example of the language in this novel. Payton is a skilled writer, making things seem more beautiful and rich than they perhaps really are. He does not waste words, but still manages to convey enough depth and, for lack of a better word, content. His language is full without being overstuffed or heavy.

Though we begin the novel with John, and his side of the story is the most dramatic, I think that The Wind is Not a River is really Helen’s story. John’s side of things moves along slowly, following his efforts to survive with his only companion, a young soldier named Karl from the same plane. It is existential, at time harrowing, and sometimes uplifting; but it is simple. Helen, on the other hand, is wrecked with worry and also trying to deal with her father, who has just had a stroke. She is desperate to hear news of John, desperate to the point where she uses a friend’s connections to blag her way into the USO as a performer. Her mission is get to Alaska and somehow find John. She has no idea how she might, but she feels she must.

Helen is extraordinary. She bottles up her nerves and dives headlong into a world she knows nothing about, muddling through and fighting her own battles against fear, doubt and an absolute lack of certainty. Her determination directs her to ask almost everyone she meets if they have seen John, and information (what little there is) only comes to her through the most tenuous and coincidental links. At first she does not even know that he has masqueraded as his brother, and asks after a journalist. She is met with shaking heads.

I of course will not give away what happens to Helen and John on their respective journeys of survival and longing, but I will say that it is not quite what I expected. A minor criticism here would be that the ending is a little rushed, and therefore seems a bit flat after the drama and emotion of the rest of the book before it. But I liked the ending – it was unconventional and somehow redemptive, and it convinced me this really is Helen’s story. It is explained at one point that the title is a phrase that means ‘this too shall pass’ – the battering wind is not a constant river. It will end. And Helen survives it all.

*

Published in the UK by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 13th Feb 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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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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