Cradles of the Reich: A Novel
“The engrossing plot, richly drawn characters, and underlying horror make this a book that lingers in the reader’s mind . . .”
One of the lesser known evils of Hitler’s Germany was the Lebensborn program, an Aryan breeding network that essentially combined maternity wards with brothels. Pregnant women with acceptable Aryan credentials but no permanent partners were forced to give up their babies for adoption to carefully vetted couples. Meanwhile, attractive young Aryan women were pimped to “reliable” soldiers and Nazi officials.
In her new novel Cradles of the Reich, bestselling author Jennifer Coburn vividly portrays this horror through the compelling stories of three very different Lebensborn victims. Each woman is sympathetic and complex in her own way, even Hilde, an increasingly ardent Nazi.
As she parrots Nazi slogans to impress her future boss in the Reich’s Women’s League, Hilde pushes away her memory of Ursula, a sweet, disabled three year old who had once lived next door. Hilde sees herself as “a passenger in an automobile, looking out from the back window. “She watched Ursula getting smaller and smaller, then disappearing entirely.”
The three women take turns narrating the novel, starting in April 1939. They soon meet at Heim Hochland, a Lebensborn facility.
Gundi, beautiful and blonde, would seem to be “a perfect specimen of German womanhood,” as a leering Nazi physician tells her. What no one knows is that the father of her unborn child is her Jewish lover, Leo, with whom she has been distributing clandestine protest literature. She is forced to move into Heim Hochland so that the authorities can be sure her “perfect” baby gets a proper Nazi upbringing.
Irma, the oldest of the narrators, was so traumatized by her experience as a nurse in World War I that she now refuses to help the other residents of her boarding house with even the simplest medical tasks. At last, she thinks she’s found her chance at happiness with her nice, if somewhat wishy-washy, fiancé, Eduard. But when she discovers that he’s hiding a Jewish woman in his house, she abruptly runs away and accepts an offer from an old friend to work as a nurse in what she believes is simply a maternity home. Unlike in the wartime hospital, she tells herself, she “would be there for the beginning of life, not the end.”
Hilde, the daughter of a local Nazi functionary, eagerly becomes the mistress of a high-ranking Obergruppenfuhrer in Berlin. For her, it’s an escape from a dreary household where she constantly feels that she’s a disappointment to her parents. “Everyone seemed to know their place in the world. Could Hilde really be the only person who felt this unmoored?” When she becomes accidentally pregnant, she, too, is sent to Heim Hochland.
Each story is a page-turner. Although Gundi is a bit of a cliché, Irma and Hilde are fully original and fascinating as they slowly change in opposite directions, Irma becoming more disillusioned with Nazism while Hilde’s belief grows ever stronger. At one point, Hilde attempts to attract Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ attention by proposing a movie script about a sneaky Jew who seeks to subvert good German farmers.
Coburn has described some of her prodigious research, even down to the question of whether the trousers of Nazi uniforms fastened with zippers or buttons. Yet the information is so immersive and carefully woven into the writing that it’s never intrusive.
The engrossing plot, richly drawn characters, and underlying horror make this a book that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the last page.