David R. Gillham’s City of Women is yet another WWII novel (I’m a big fan, obviously), depicting events in Germany and raising the question of moral choice: to turn a blind eye to the crimes committed against the Jewish population (and other “undesirable elements”) by the Gestapo or to acknowledge them and do something to help the victims of the Nazi persecution.
First of all, I must say that I’m very impressed by David R. Gillham’s extraordinary writing: It is beautiful and rich in detail. The description of the setting and events is so vivid it plunges you into war-time Berlin and makes you its citizen, rather than a mere onlooker. You feel with your skin the bleak and scary atmosphere of Berlin in 1943: air raids, bomb shelters, death, destruction, ration cards, extremism or disillusionment, you name it. You feel the fear of saying the wrong things under a totalitarian regime, where just one word against it can get you in trouble with the authorities, where not only your neighbors but your family may tell on you and get you arrested, tortured, deported or killed. Thus, helping others in that atmosphere takes great courage.
Sigrid Schroeder is a “model German hausfrau,” except that she failed to fulfill one of the major duties of a German woman, which is, to procreate. Like other model Arian women, she goes through her daily routine: She works, quarrels with her mother-in-law, and writes letters to her husband fighting Russians on the eastern front.
She isn’t blind to the acts of violence of the Nazis against Jews in her city, but she ignores them. She is too self-absorbed, pining for her ex-lover, a Jewish man, frequenting the movie theater where they used to meet and reliving their passionate rendezvous. So she’s in a state of slumber, if not indifference, to what is going on around her.
Until Ericha, her young neighbor, involved in hiding Jews, asks for her aid. Only then does Sigrid step in. It’s her “awakening.” And once she becomes a part of an underground group (the nation’s conscience, I would say), she can’t turn back, despite the ever-present danger to her life.
I personally was shocked by one unfamiliar aspect of the war, explored by the author. We hear a lot about the Holocaust, but not about this particular aspect. But, of course, I’m not going to ruin the suspense by naming it. I can only say that most of the characters in the novel are not what they seem to be, and we the readers experience the same surprise or shock at the truth revealed as Sigrid Schroeder does.