Historical fiction writer David Gillham has written three novels set in the era of World War II, an interest he traces by hearing stories about the war from his father, who served in the army during the conflict, and his sense that war and its aftermath – and the horrors of the Holocaust – still resonate in many ways.
“It’s hard to explain,” Gillham, who lives in Amherst, said in a recent phone call. “It would not be accurate to say that I identify with him. But I have the passion to understand it.
This passion underlies Gillham’s latest and third novel, “Shadows of Berlin,” a story centered on Rachel Perlman, a German-American Jewish woman in her twenties who grew up in Nazi Germany, has to barely survived World War II and is now trying to rebuild his life in New York in 1955.
But Rachel, born Rashka Morgenstern, cannot escape her past. Her mother, a talented painter, was consumed by the Holocaust, and the horror Rachel witnessed in Germany continues to give her nightmares, leaving a barrier between her and her American husband, Aaron, a well-meaning but socially awkward who cannot understand his wife well.
“I’m just a Jew from Flatbush,” Aaron tends to say. “What do I know anyway?”
Also living in New York is Rachel’s uncle, Fritz, who helped her, to some extent, find her place in a new country, but who has his own baggage from the war. He is a devious character, a former art dealer now living hand to mouth who extorts money from Rachel by playing on the theme of family loyalty.
And when Fritz discovers an old painting of Rachel’s mother in a Manhattan pawnshop, a striking portrait of a woman who later became Rachel’s and her mother’s sworn enemy in Berlin, memories of the war in Rachel – and her guilt about what she had to do to survive – sparks a new crisis, shattering her belief that she can forget her past and reinvent herself as an American housewife and mother.
At its heart, “Shadows of Berlin,” published by Sourcesbook Landmark, is about trauma, survivor guilt, and the attempt by American Jews of this era to come to terms with the Holocaust, even as genocide survivors attempt to bury their memories. . But it’s also a story of redemption, as Rachel and Aaron struggle to find the path to love between them, however imperfect.
“Rachel and Aaron think they can save each other,” Gillham says. “She’s trying to create a new identity for herself, and he feels guilty for missing out on the war. [Aaron served Stateside in the army and never saw combat]and he thinks giving this fragile refugee a chance for a new life is a kind of atonement for that.
He says he also wanted to set the book in New York in the 1950s because so many Jewish refugees ended up in the city, and because “it was the 1950s when [Holocaust] the survivors finally started talking about what had happened to them. There had been 10 years of silence before that.
The new novel is “a progression”, adds Gillham, from his previous book, “Annelies”, a speculative novel which posits that Anne Frank, the famous Dutch-German teenage chronicler who died during the Holocaust, survives the war and return to Holland. . His fictional Anne is wracked with guilt that she experienced and her mother and sister died, “and that’s something I wanted to see again,” he said.
Gilliam also explores some of the ground he covered in his first book, 2012’s “City of Women,” a New York Times bestseller about a wartime German woman in Berlin who begins to help Jews hide from the Gestapo.
As in that story, “Shadows of Berlin” is told partly in flashbacks, with scenes reminiscent of Rachel’s privileged but lonely childhood when she was raised by her widowed mother, Lavinia, who sees her daughter primarily as a obstacle to his artistic career.
Then the Nazis take over, and Rachel and Lavinia see their lives continually marginalized and degraded by the Reich’s anti-Semitic laws. Eventually they become “U-boats”, hiding where they can in Berlin while dodging the Gestapo and their “catchers”: Jews who are granted a more comfortable existence by the Nazis in exchange for identifying other Jews trying to live undercover.
This is terrain Gillham knows well, and the scenes of wartime Berlin are filled with fear, cold, hunger, despair and betrayal.
“Rashka has learned to live with leaky roofs and drafty windows, polluted plumbing, bed bugs and the rattle of rats in the gutters,” he wrote. “But she can see how this daily misery is reducing her mother. Reducing her to bone poverty, carving her face into an ax blade.
A decade later in New York, Rachel, a painter herself, first felt compelled to continue her mother’s artistic legacy, and she found a gallery that would sell and show her initial work; which impresses Aaron, a working-class guy who works long hours as the manager of a restaurant in Manhattan.
But her attempt to extract meaning from the ashes of Europe and her mother’s death seems like a lie to Rachel: “She was still claim be an artist. The human plumes of color it produced were nothing. … Their impact was as meaningless as the flames of a candle. A cough might blow them away…. Maybe she could be what her husband wanted her to be. A wife and a mother.
All is not Sturm und Drang. Gillham offers a vivid portrait of New York in the 1950s, with its noisy streets and bustling restaurants, and the televisions now appearing in homes. On a first visit to Katz’s Delicatessen, a landmark on New York’s Lower East Side, Rachel is “stunned by the sheer scale American the place is…and its overwhelming abundance,” from platters of pastrami, corned beef and lox to rows and rows of rye bread, challah and bagels.
At a raucous family gathering at the Brooklyn home where Aaron grew up, there’s a lot of laughter, as Aaron and his bohemian sister, Naomi, needle each other, an elderly uncle falls asleep on the couch after drinking too much, and Aaron her mother, Miriam, hints that she wants to be a grandmother.
However, Rachel still feels apart from everything: “[H]er sense of family was shattered. She can only press her nose against the glass and peer through it. Her isolation is reinforced by scenes in which her mother’s ghost appears and speaks with her.
Gillham, who once worked in New York as a book wholesaler, has made additional trips to the city in recent years to do research for “Shadows.” He also examined the history of Jewish seekers in wartime Berlin, including the notorious Stella Ingrid Goldschlag, a woman whose blonde beauty made her pass for an Aryan; by some reports, she denounced hundreds of Jews, possibly even thousands.
In its flashback scenes, “Shadows of Berlin” becomes part literary thriller as Rachel and her mother try to hide in the city, including from a notorious catcher known as The Red Angel; and the tension also mounts as the story behind Rachel’s post-war guilt becomes clearer.
Yet in New York, Gillham also sketches poignant moments in which Aaron and Naomi, however awkwardly, reach out to Rachel to try to understand her experience in Germany, or at least to let her know that they want to help him if they can. And when Rachel faces another unexpected reminder of her past, she’ll have to decide how to live in the present.
It is an empathetic portrait of a woman for whom there are no easy answers and who must relearn how to trust others and herself.
“I always look for the gray in my characters,” says Gillham. “Life is never black and white.”
As he writes in an afterword: “I don’t think grief and guilt are easily overcome. A person can spend his life with them. …But in the end, I want the reader to believe [the novel] is also a story of hope. Because hope is a vital regenerative force.
Gillham’s website is davidrgillham.com.
Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at [email protected]