Secrets in Berlin
Why would someone risk their life to save a stranger? There’s no easy answer to that question. However, it’s one authors love exploring, especially when writing about Germany during the Nazi era.
In his wonderful “City of Women” (Amy Eihorn Books/G. P. Putnam’s Sons), David R. Gillham examines the life of Sigrid Schröder, who, at first glance, seems to be a model German citizen. Not only does she have a soldier husband serving on the Russian front, she works as a stenographer in the patent office in Berlin.
Although she is not fond of her mother-in-law, the two live together and make do with the rations allotted by the government. Sigrid’s only vice seems to be her frequent trips to the movies. Yet, it soon becomes clear that Sigrid has depths few suspect: Not only does she have a Jewish lover, she soon finds herself involved in a world filled with secrets, some so dangerous they could cost her and her family their lives.
When the story opens in 1943, the mobilization of almost every able-bodied male has made Berlin into “a city of women.” British Air Force bombs fall on a regular basis and tempers flare from the lack of sleep and the discomfort of the shelters. However, it’s still very dangerous to complain openly about the Nazi regime.
Movie theaters serve as a shelter from the real world: “There’s a crowd waiting for the ushers to open the door to the auditorium. In a city where the food is bad and getting worse, where rationing has emptied shop windows, in a city slowly suffocating on the gritty effluence of another year of war, movie houses are still places to spend a few marks without cutting coupons from a ration book, or waiting one’s life away in a queue.”
Sophie doesn’t go for the films—which are Nazi propaganda—but “to find an empty space in the day...to find a crevice of solitude.”
The dark balcony at the movie theater is a safe place for people to talk or make love. Her lover first approaches her there, as does her neighbor—a young woman doing her duty year as a nanny—who asks her to lie to the police.
Why does Sigrid take such dangerous chances? She’s unsure herself. Although her instinct is to follow the rules, the rules don’t always seem to apply now because there are larger questions of right and wrong. Perhaps it’s her curiosity that gets her into trouble. Sigrid wants to know what her neighbor is doing, but in Nazi Germany, knowledge is a dangerous thing. It forces you to choose—to give information to police or commit yourself to the work. Just keeping secrets is not a safe option: associating with a guilty person can cost you your job or your life.
Sigrid also discovers how difficult it is to keep secrets: she feels “closed off,” no longer able to talk openly to her one friend at work and completely unable to share with her mother-in-law, who tows the Nazi party line.
Even those working to resist the Nazis parcel out information on a need-to-know basis. It’s unsafe for everyone to know too much since they might be arrested and tortured. Yet, not knowing torments Sigrid: What happens to the people they help? Are they safe? Have they been captured? What’s the next step in their journey? This desire pushes her to take greater and greater risks. At the same time, she wonders whether life is completely random or if there is “some kind of unknowable clockwork in action. Some vast pattern, unseen at street level.” Yet, Sigrid knows the pattern will never be revealed, that some things have to be taken on faith.
“City of Women” is a powerful, dramatic novel with wonderfully complex characters. The suspenseful, intertwining plots will keep readers on the edges of their seats. It’s fascinating to watch Sigrid’s character develop throughout the course of the book, as she moves from focusing solely on herself to caring about the good of others. Yet, even at the end, Sigrid is far from perfect: While she may try to do good, she also stumbles and falls like the rest of us. Gillham is to be congratulated for turning the story of an ordinary woman into an extraordinary novel.