When Margarete Dos moved with her family to Berlin on the eve of World War II, she and her younger brother were blindly ushered into a generation of Hitler Youth. Like countless citizens under Hitler’s regime, Margarete struggled to understand what was happening to her country. Later, as a nurse for the German Red Cross, she treated countless young soldiers—recruited in the eleventh hour to fight a losing battle—they would die before her eyes as Allied bombs racked her beloved city. Yet, her deep humanity, intelligence, and passion for life—which sparkles in every sentence of her memoir—carried Margarete through to war’s end. But just when she thought the worst was over, and she and her mother were on a train headed to Sweden, they were suddenly rerouted deep into Russia.
Summary from Goodreads
Apparently, I am completely incapable of resisting non-fiction books about WWII. I am fascinated by the period, and there are so many of them, from so many different points of view. Story is my thing, and there are enough stories to keep me reading forever. Letters from Berlin is a relatively new book (published in 2012). It’s from a point of view that I haven’t seen very much–an ordinary German girl from before the war through her experiences in a Russian prison camp after the war. The text is based on oral recollections from Margarete Dos, as recorded by her daughter Kerstin, as well as some written records. All together, it makes a fascinating glimpse into her life during the war.
It’s also a fascinating glimpse at the way Lieff has put together the narrative. She freely admits that she has rearranged her mother’s scattered reminiscences into something that’s a cohesive narrative. Throughout, she includes footnotes when she has been not been able to confirm her mother’s account, or where it contradicts the known historical record.
Margarete seems to have been a skilled storyteller, with a gift for description and dialogue. The book is incredibly readable, funny at some points and heartbreaking at others. The story is reinforced with wonderful pictures of her family, Berlin, Jena (where she studied medicine).
And yet, I was constantly wondering to what extent I could trust the narrative, partly since Margarete was recounting all of this from such a distance, but also because Lieff herself is so present in the editing and shaping of the story. It’s not that I think she’s falsified information, or anything close. I don’t! But reading Letters from Berlin was like looking though wavy glass–it’s not that the landscape doesn’t really exist, but it’s not exactly as you see it. I don’t know, and can’t know, to what extent this is true.
Moreover, it’s not a fault in the book–and yet it affected my reading experience so strongly that I couldn’t leave it out of this review. Soon afterwards, I read Home Front Girl, which is also a memoir of a girl growing up during WWII, compiled and published by her daughter. But in that case, I was told that the account was largely unedited, and compiled from diary entries kept at the time, and so I trusted its veracity. In short, my reading experiences for these two very similar books were almost entirely different, and yet I’m not sure that the actual process for either one was so very different.
Regardless, Letters from Berlin is a great book for those who are interested in WWII. Margarete Dos’s reminiscences give a glimpse into the reactions of an average German family during and after the war. I felt (paradoxically, given my issues above) that I knew her by the end, just from her vivid narrative.
Book source: public library
Book information: Lyons Press, 2012; adult non-fiction (could easily be YA)