This novel is set in Berlin 1943. The tide of war has turned against the Nazis since the Battle of Stalingrad, and British nighttime bombings have resumed. The Nazis have stepped up their campaign against the Jews, rounding them up systematically and sending them to death camps in the east.
The main character, Sigrid Schroder lives in a flat with her insufferable mother-in-law and works as a stenographer while her husband Kaspar serves on the eastern front. Sigrid, like many Berliners, is detached from the political events that form daily life until a charismatic man named Egon and a young woman named Ericha present her with choices — to get involved, to care, to try to make a difference. Sigrid becomes involved in the dangerous work of hiding “U-boats” — Jews and deserters. In doing so, she encounters other ordinary women and men who use their meager resources to protect and transport these people out of the country, risking their own lives to do so. The Gestapo make it their business to hunt down people like Sigrid, but they aren’t the only danger — ordinary citizens like Sigrid’s co-workers and others who live in her apartment building could denounce her if they became suspicious, and even some members of the Jewish community have been turned into “catchers” — those who hunt down fellow Jews for the Nazis to protect themselves.
As Sigrid becomes more deeply involved in hiding Jews, her relationships with Ericha and Egon become more complicated. Ericha is a young German woman who simply hates the Nazis and will do anything required to help those in her charge. At the beginning of the novel, she is more worldly than the older Sigrid, but by the end, her youth becomes evident and Sigrid becomes more of the leader. The relationships that Sigrid has with Ericha, her mother-in-law, the women in her building, and a particular woman she is hiding, are the meat of the story for me. Due to war, Berlin is a city of women, and their relationships can be nurturing or combative.
Sigrid’s relationships with the men in her life are more troubling. Even before Kaspar left for the front, their marriage had become somewhat stale. Egon provides the passion that was missing, but the story of how Sigrid and Egon meet and become involved seems ridiculous to me, a male fantasy — two strangers hooking up in the back of a movie theater. Then there is Wolfram, the Nazi officer whose sisters live in the flat across the hall from Sigrid’s. Wolfram lost a leg in the war but not his charisma, and Sigrid becomes involved with him as well. Sigrid’s sexcapades just seemed sort of silly to me and not essential to the plot. Maybe it was supposed to demonstrate that deep down, she was always a risk-taker? Or that the author’s dream is that smart, beautiful women just can’t wait to do it with brutes who treat them like objects? As a card-carrying feminist, I veered back and forth between being aggravated by these passages and rolling my eyes at them.
The plot gets a bit complicated at the end and I felt that some details could have been clearer, but overall this was a pretty good book. Gillham did his research to get the details of life during wartime right, and Sigrid’s transformation from apathetic German trying to get through the war to a protector of the persecuted is convincing.