”Whom do you trust, whom do you love, and who can be saved?
It is 1943—the height of the Second World War—and Berlin has essentially become a city of women.
Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew.
But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets.
A high ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit. A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions. And then there’s the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles.
Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two.”
Thoughts: Since the truth about the Nazi regime first made headline news, Germany during World War II continues to fascinate historians, psychiatrists, sociologists, and millions of others around the globe. After all, just how could an entire country allow a select few to decimate an entire population without doing anything to stop it? David R. Gillham’s City of Women takes this classic question and presents one potential answer. He does so with amazing historical accuracy and authentic voices in the form of Ericha, Kaspar, Egon, Wolfram and especially Sigrid.
The theme of secrets in City of Women is a telling one. Everyone has secrets; it is human nature after all to keep things – feelings, thoughts, actions, desires – from others. Normally, such secrets are harmless. However, during the Nazi regime, secrets of any kind could mean the difference between life and death, if not for you then for someone you might not even know existed. Sigrid’s secrets at first are harmless – she had a lover, she hates her mother-in-law, she chaffs at the laws imposed by the Nazis. Yet, as she removes her blinders and begins to acknowledge the truth of what is happening around her, those secrets get much more dangerous for everyone. It is a thought-provoking juxtaposition and one that inadvertently forces a reader to think about one’s own reactions if placed in Sigrid’s position.
Sigrid starts as the quintessential Frau – stolid but silent in her suffering but grows into a woman willing to take life-or-death risks because it is the morally acceptable thing to do. Her development is not so much an evolution but an acceptance of who she really is and a mounting unwillingness to continue to hide behind society’s enforced norms. Hers is a modern attitude in a very backwards period in time. Not only is it refreshing to read about a woman who does not just chaff at society’s restrictions but actually does something about it, Mr. Gillham raises the question of just how many other men and women did their best to subvert Hitler’s regime.
In City of Women, Mr. Gillham masterfully captures the fear, uncertainty, shame, and ignorance that hallmarks the Nazi regime. More importantly, he accurately portrays the internal struggles of women during the 1940s, as they are caught between the promotion of the idealized housewife, the growing discontent towards society’s constraints, and, in Germany at least, the very real danger engendered by any sort of revolt against those constraints. Sigrid’s evolution from naïve but deliberate ignorance to active dissent is spellbinding, as is the myriad of authentic conflicting – and conflicted – attitudes. City of Women is everything historical fiction should be.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Amy Einhorn Books for my review copy!