Friday Morning Bookclub

June 9, 2010

My Enemy’s Cradle

Filed under: Historical Fiction,My Enemy's Cradle — susanbright @ 10:05 am

A review by Carol:

Sara Young, author of several children’s books, created her first adult novel “My Enemy’s Cradle,” which explored the Lebensborn program of the Nazis.The story begins in Holland in September, 1941 when we meet the Van der Berg family and start experiencing their lives, and all its increasing hardships, in wartime Europe. The Van der Bergs are a middle class Dutch family living a quiet life when circumstances begin to “happen” to them. Nazis are infiltrating the nations around them, terrorizing the populace, and that prompts their widowed Jewish brother-in-law from Poland (the husband of Mrs. Van der Berg’s deceased sister) to send his young, blond daughter to them for safe-keeping. Her name is Cyrla and she is nearly identical in looks and age to her Dutch cousin Anneke. Cyrla is poetic and sensitive and Anneke is vivacious and flirty; nevertheless, the girls grow to love each other dearly.

Through the day to day life of this family, we see how the citizens of occupied countries endured food shortages, the disruption of family businesses, Nazi sympathizing neighbors, increasingly humiliating restrictions for Jews, and the stress of complying with the Nazi military who commandeered their communities. Adding to these burdens were the problems that developed with each of the girls. Anneke fell in love with a young German soldier and became pregnant. Cyrla was part-Jewish and was in fear of somehow getting discovered. Complicating matters were the reactions of Mr. Van der Berg, who was greatly humiliated by his daughter’s pregnancy and very conflicted about sheltering a niece whose presence put the family at great risk.

The second half of the story shifts to a Lebensborn home in Germany, a Nazi program that encouraged a high birth-rate of Germans by giving women carrying German babies a safe harbor during their pregnancies. Anneke’s father, to the horror of his wife and daughter, made arrangements for her to be sent to such a home. At the same time, Cyrla was facing frightening threats that could reveal her Jewish identity. When Anneke found out that her German boyfriend was not in love with her and was leaving anyway for another assignment, she tried inducing an abortion and died in the process. The opportunity that came from this tragedy was obvious: the family traded the identities of the cousins and announced that it was Cyrla who died. Cyrla quickly became pregnant by a Jewish partisan who she deeply admired. She then took Anneke’s place in the Lebensborn home.

The Lebensborn home was deep in Germany, a terrifying surprise to Cyrla who mistakenly believed it to be in Holland. Her Jewish freedom-fighter and his friends in the Resistance were to come rescue her in the Dutch town they believed she was headed. But now that was hopeless and she began the long, anxious “imprisonment” in the maternity home, surrounded by Nazis and the manic spirit of German superiority. Adding to her fears was the prospect of having a baby with dark features, which would arouse the suspicions of her caregivers and cause her and the baby great harm. Through Cyrla’s narrative, we get a feel for what daily life was like in such a facility. There was a pecking order, with the German women on the top, German sympathizers in the middle, and non-Germans from Occupied countries on the bottom. Some of the attendants were silently anti-Nazi, most were fiercely Nazi. We see how the anti-Nazis were weeded out and made into an example. The stay at the Home was, at best, boring and tedious; at worst, terrifying, especially if you have a big secret to keep, as Cyrla did. As the story progresses, Anneke’s German boyfriend comes to the Home when he was informed by German authorities that he was named as the father of the baby. The experience of coming face to face with each other was nervewracking for both of them, but especially for Cyrla. She knows that Anneke told Karl about her Jewish background. To make a long story short, Karl turns out to be a good man who was anti-Nazi, frightened of being “found out” himself, frightened of having to commit atrocities, and eager to protect Cyrla and the baby he knows is not his. He goes to great lengths to save them, to his peril. When the war is over and a few years have past, Cyrla takes her young child and goes in search of him. They are joyfully reunited and we end the book knowing that another story begins.

At the book club meeting, the group agreed this was a compelling story. We knew little or nothing about the Lebensborn program and this was our first introduction to the details of the German selective breeding process. In that regard the book was fascinating. However, it seemed to be written on a “young adult” level and when we realized that she was the author of many children’s books, we weren’t surprised. This would be a perfect selection for teens. It combined history with stories of romance. It showed inspirational love, disappointing love, and short-lived love. It had kind mothers, mean fathers, mothers who died and fathers who were helpless. It had villians at every turn. While those elements are in every great piece of literature, this story was perhaps too short to develop these themes fully. Since this was a book about the Lebensborn program, we would have preferred to see less narrative about the family in Holland and more narrative about the dynamics within the facility, more details about the program itself, and naturally we wanted to know more about what happened to all these children in this “baby factory” who were abandoned after the war.

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