The first book about the Holocaust I ever read was The Diary of Anne Frank in the seventh grade. From my thirteen-year old perspective, the Holocaust was a completely overwhelming, devastating event. I could not understand the why and how of how such an event occurred, and I remember being moved by the sacrifices that people made to help those who were being persecuted by Hitler and the Nazis. As I have gotten older, I have read many other books about the Holocaust, and some of them have become treasured favorites. In the past few years, I have read a few books that focus on the actions of ordinary Germans, rather than on the experiences in the death camps. City of Women by David R. Gillham is such a book. It details the actions of ordinary Germans, provides a compelling character study, and engages the reader with a compelling plot.
Sigrid is an ordinary German woman. She is a patent office typist who lives with her husband Kaspar, who is a soldier, and her mother-in-law. Her husband is sent off to battle, and Sigrid is experiencing life in Berlin—a city under frequent bombing threats. Her mother-in-law doesn't like Sigrid much, and the only relief she finds from her confining life is a trip to the local theater. Even though the movies are nearly always war related or propaganda pieces, Sigrid uses the movie theater as an escape from her life. She eventually encounters two people at the theater who will change her life. She meets a Jewish man, Egon, with whom she begins a torrid affair. She also becomes involved with Ericha, who is a nanny for a high-ranking German’s wife and is also involved in the resistance movement.
Sigrid becomes involved in the resistance movement as well and assists in hiding Jewish people and securing documents for them. It is not really clear why she does this because her relationship with Egon seems more sexual than really romantic. Though she seems to have some thought that they could truly be together, Egon gives her no reason to believe that this is a viable option. Egon is married and his family will soon be integral to the plot. I got the feeling that Sigrid’s relationship with Egon was just a way to escape her life.
When the story begins, Sigrid is just a bored German typist who is trying to make due with limited rations, a grumpy mother-in-law, and an absent husband. As the story continues, however, Sigrid becomes a more fleshed out character and gains confidence and the skills she needs to take a stand against the circumstances around her. This character development happens gradually and believably.
City of Women was full of details about Germany during the war. The place names, ranks of officials, and systems that people used in order to survive were historically authentic and well researched. I don’t think I have ever read a Holocaust book that delved into this aspect of the war as well as City of Women. As a history buff, I was quite impressed with the accuracy and historical detail.
The first third of the book moved a little slowly, and it took quite a while for me to warm up to Sigrid. I can’t say that I didn’t like her. I just felt like I did not know her until about a third of the way through. This affected my enjoyment of the novel and my attachment to the other characters. There were several German words that it took me awhile to figure out, which I expected in such a historically accurate story. Trying to figure it out was a bit overwhelming at first.
The focus on what happened with the women while the men went to war was a unique twist on the typical Holocaust novel. Focusing on ordinary Germans rather than the death camps added another dimension as well. These stories are important to tell as much as stories about the other aspects of World War II. City of Women is well-written and worth adding to the catalog of literature about the Holocaust.
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina