More than other books on the subject, this chronicle of ordinary lives in the atmosphere of wartime Germany captures that spirit of the weight of an evil so oppressive that it drove people mad. Though the book’s style is spare and hardly novelistic, it gives the reader a sense of the daily grind of a doom that was not merely encroaching: it was there, in the midst of life, and it leaked into every aspect of being.
The book was carefully researched by its author, who lives in Berlin and spent years in its making. The lives span both sides of the German/Jewish divide, and show how moral confusion and chaos were spawned by the ugly death-dealing policies of the Third Reich.
Each “life” is a simple, almost diaristic account, taken directly from archives without embellishment. That serves to make it more compelling, if not as rich in prose as some readers might prefer.
A young sociopathic woman drifting from man to man, skilled in getting her way by sexual wiles and petty thievery, falls prey to the Reich’s determination to rid itself of inferior persons and is eliminated within the confines of a mental institution where, her family believed, she might improve.
A respectable Jew and war veteran is assigned to organize the Jewish guard unit at Theresienstadt, a living hell where inmates were forced to perform music and produce comedic sketches proclaiming the wonderful conditions in the camp. He was later arrested for “war crimes,” having survived partly through the corruption of the camp systems that allowed him to appropriate more and better provisions for his family and those of his carefully chosen squadron. He later wrote, “We must place a seal on this and sink it in the deepest mine of oblivion.” For though his actions seems disgraceful in the context of “normal” life, and “Jews are just as good and as bad as other people,” still he saved lives as surely as did Schindler, by protecting his own.
Consider, too, the instructive tale of Wilhelm K, who, assigned to oversee the Nazi occupation of White Ruthenia in Russia, by turns murdered Jews wholesale and saved others from slaughter, and was able to justify both actions. He had a Jewish mistress, spouted the party line, gradually developed a host of physical symptoms that reduced him to near starvation, and was eventually assassinated by partisans, no doubt a blessing as he was beginning to be a thorn in the flesh of his Nazi overlords.
There is a grittiness and intensity to these stories that will haunt the reader. The voices harrow our spirit, crying to be heard and understood.