I have put off writing about The German Wife by Kelly Rimmer because I am not even sure how I feel about the events described in the book. We focus on two main female characters, the men and children in their lives, and their acquaintances.
Sofie lives in Berlin, Germany and we follow her through the rise of Hitler in Germany and the reign of the Nazi regime during World War II. After the war we follow Sofie and her children when she reunites with her husband in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950.
Sofie is married to Jürgen, a rocket scientist coveted by the US space program. Jürgen worked in the German space program experimenting with building rockets to launch into space. This work was in its very beginning stages, but was progressing and seemed promising, Jürgen loved his work but when he was forced to work for the Nazis or starve, when his goal was changed from rockets to rocket bombs, he dreaded his job. Fear for his life and his family’s lives, the impossibility of leaving Germany at that time, and his knowledge that such a high-profile scientist could not hope to hide out in anonymity made getting away from the Nazis unrealistic, perhaps suicidal.
Sofie hated Hitler and the Nazis. She hated that she had to let her children be indoctrinated into Nazi beliefs in their school. She loses her two oldest children to the Nazis. She has to send her best friend, Mayim, away because she is Jewish, and Sofie’s block manager (spy) told the Nazis that Mayim was living with Sofie’s family. Their best friends Lydia and Karl became loyal Nazis. Lydia stopped wearing make-up and started producing babies for the Reich. Karl, also Jürgen’s boss, put pressure on Jürgen to join the Nazi party.
Eventually pressure was put on Jürgen to join the SS and he had to supervise prisoners from the camps to do the work of building bombs. He carried the guilt of the cruel treatment of those “workers” with him for the rest of his life along with the guilt of those hundreds of thousands that his bombs killed. At the end of the war Jürgen gets captured and sent to Fort Bliss in Huntsville, Alabama to work as a rocket scientist once again. Five years later he is freed and Sofie and their two remaining children join him in a housing project locals call Sauerkraut Hill. This may sound like Jürgen’s story, but the author always focuses on Sofie.
Lizzie is the other female character we follow. She, her parents, and her brother own a farm in Dallam County, Texas. Lizzie loves farming and it is her goal to stay on the family farm and help her father, and to eventually inherit the farm. The 30’s in Dallam County, Texas has other plans. No rain has fallen for several years, and this draught continues and deepens to become what is known as the Dust Bowl which happens to coincide with the Great Depression. Farmers lost their farms and farm families became homeless wanderers, temporarily homeless until they could find a new job, not an easy task in a depression.
Lizzie and Henry become orphans trying to scrape by in El Paso. City life is no place for a farm woman who wants nothing more than to own her own farm, who has to find a way to support herself and her brother. Henry can’t seem to find any way at all to cope with their new circumstances, but eventually he joins the service. It seems safe enough to Lizzie until the attack on Pearl Harbor happens in 1941. Lizzie has found a place to work at an upscale hotel where she, who never wanted to marry, meets, and marries a well-off man who stays frequently at the hotel. Calvin and Lizzie live in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950 when the Germans arrive. Henry is home from the war but with what we now call PTSD. His neighbors are now Germans, fresh from Nazi Germany.
If you were Sofie how would you react to finding yourself in Huntsville, Alabama when you expected to have to pay for your Nazi past, regardless of the fact that you were only a Nazi for reasons of survival? The German community is riddled with guilt.
How would you feel if you were Lizzie with a brother damaged by his war experience and his presence at the liberation of Auschwitz? Suppose like Lizzie, America had never handed anything to you even though you are a citizen, never a Nazi? These people were our enemies and yet they are given lovely homes, jobs that pay very well, freedom, and eventually they will become citizens.
Would you be angry if you were their neighbors? Would you fear them if you were their neighbors? If America were to become a racist authoritarian state, would you rebel, become an activist, ‘go along to get along’, see your children raised as white supremacists and Evangelicals? Do we still have time to stop this from happening here?
Kelly Rimmer may not have intended this book to be an analogy of our current situation in America, but anyone reading this story cannot help but make the connection between then and now, between Germans who enabled Nazi murders because they were driven by fear to put on Nazism, but who never become Nazis in their minds. I always wondered what I would have done if I had lived in Nazi Germany, didn’t you? This book takes you there but your answer to that question might be very different now?