From the start this novel pulled me in, as I was intrigued by the format of three different points of view of women living during Hitlers reign in the US, Poland and Germany. It shows how these women navigated the trying political times, one as a debutante, one as a surgical doctor, and another as a prisoner at the dreaded Ravensbruck concentration camp. It did deliver, as I was pulled into different directions by these women, however I feel the pov's became imbalanced midway through.
Kasia and Herta's lives are so intrisically linked here, with Herta being an unwilling (at first) surgeon charged with performing medical experiments on Kasia and many other "rabbits" of Ravensbruck. Their pov's are so dependent on one another, and their paths are so dark, that when we jump to Caroline's high-society life in NYC, it became jarring and made me lose sympathy for this character in particular. I couldn't stop thinking "I just watched Kasia experience some true physical and emotional horrors, and I have a hard time feeling bad that your boyfriend is married, ok?" Although I did enjoy the character of Paul, and felt he was good for Caroline throughout, the relationship between them overshadowed a lot of what was so fascinating about this woman, particularly the magnitude of her altruistic work long after the last bomb fell.
One thing this book particularly succeeded in was making me realize how privileged in my life I am, sitting here, reading a book, searching for Pokemon, while genocide occurs in countries all over the world. Syrians are trying to escape their circumstances and being turned away, just like so many I am reading about in this book, and I'm here thinking "oh man I hope someone does something about that!" Which I recognize was exactly what those in Caroline's pov were doing. "Here have a check, a pity about Germany etc, where to for brunch?"
Something I found lacking was enough transition from unwilling doctor to what Herta became at the end, someone that saw it as "just doing her job." She eventually doesn't appear to see anything wrong with her actions, choosing her career prospects over her humanity, and I didn't get to follow her on that journey, even having access to her pov for much of the book. I recognize the narrative is fairly long, so adding much more to include greater depth could have made it gargantuan, but having all the pov's almost requires it.
It's a tricky thing, fictional accounts based on real people (Herta and Caroline in particular). You can get so much motivation and things from researching their letters, correspondence, journals, news articles, but how much personality/experiences/emotions can one add before you lose track of the people that lived, instead of what you're creating? This isn't a question I can answer, but I do wish the emotional experiences had balanced out better, as I feel it would have given me a greater connection to all.
As this was an audiobook, I must include how I felt about the narration. I think the right women were chosen to read these roles, as they all embodied Caroline, Herta, and Kasia with excellent grasps of the time period, language, culture, and personality.
Overall, I am glad I read this, even if just to learn something about these women I wasn't aware existed in history. It made me want to learn more about them, which I believe was the goal of the author. On that note, she succeeded. Those interested in similarly fictional accounts of Ravensbruck and women during WWII, be sure to also check out Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.
This is an excellent overview of the vast Nazi KL system and its history from the 1930s through the end of World War II. Wachsmann’s writing is particularly lucid, with a very readable mix of anecdotal and archival/statistical documentation.
The largely chronological organization helps reveal the evolution of the camps. It’s easy to have just one picture of how the KL worked, but Wachsmann does a fine job showing how the camps not only had different purposes from each other, but that the purposes and methods of operation changed over time. One example he explores is how the work camps became statistically less deadly in 1943, in response to Himmler’s orders to make prisoners more of a labor resource to outside industry.
Another particular strength is Wachsmann’s showing how Nazi ideology swayed––and sometimes very far––to serve war expedients and the ambitions of commandants and their superiors. He enlivens his work by illustrating his conclusions with examples of particular individuals, both well-known historical figures and numerous people whose fate was to be swept into the brutal world of the camps.
Wachsmann tackles some of the conventional wisdom about the camps and the prisoners (such as that all kapos were sadists, that prisoners became completely dehumanized, that women formed close bonds but men didn’t), presents his views and reasons for his conclusions. Wachsmann has a clear-eyed, pragmatic and logical style. He is no prisoner of ideology in his approach.
Along with another stellar recent work, Sarah Helm’s Ravensbruck, this will be a resource for years to come.