Inspired by family letters, Hummel chronicles the existence of an ordinary middle-class German family in the waning days of the Third Reich.
Any author writing about German life during the Nazi regime has one primary challenge: how to address the Holocaust. Or, as Hummel succinctly puts it in her afterword, “What did [my characters] know and when did they know it?” She has opted not to use hindsight to impute either heroic resistance or conscious complicity to her characters. The two principal narrators are Liesl, a kindergarten teacher at a medical spa in the remote town of Hannesburg, and her husband, Frank, a surgeon who married Liesl in haste—mainly since she is good with children—after his first wife died giving birth to son Jürgen. Frank is called to a military hospital in Weimar, where he works as a reconstructive surgeon, repairing horrific battle scars and studying new skin-graft techniques. When a guard from nearby Buchenwald presents symptoms of typhus, Frank is too overworked to ponder conditions at what he thinks is a prison camp for criminals. Back home, Liesl, who once revered Hitler but by now is disillusioned, is preoccupied with keeping her new family fed and safe. Two refugee families are billeted in her house; her oldest son, Hans, is a budding black marketeer; baby Jürgen has a fever; and middle son Anselm has somehow contracted lead poisoning. The Nazi doctor she consults threatens to send “Ani” to the notorious Hadamar asylum if he does not improve. In desperation, she writes to Frank in code, asking him to desert and come home. These characters appear to have, at best, blinders on and, at worse, to be in denial about the fate of their missing Jewish neighbors and what is actually going on at camps like Buchenwald. However, these all-too-human failings are so honestly rendered that a stark question emerges: Who among us, faced with similar circumstances, would have acted differently?
Heart-rending and chilling.