Thank you to the team at HarperCollins for gifting me with this novel. I have not been paid for this review and all opinions are solely my own.
WWII has been well-documented in historical fiction, so much so that it feels every aspect of it has been explored in many ways, each so different from the other you still learn something new each time. The Librarian Of Auschwitz, for example, told the tale of Dita, a real-life Jewish prisoner of the notorious concentration camp who risked her life protecting fourteen books that were hidden in the camp. Tales like these bring forward the individuals that suffered at the hands of the Nazis, ensuring victims are being heard.
While the majority of ‘minorities’ come to mind when we think of the lives lost during this time period, one’ group’ that is often overlooked is the Germans. Not all Germans were Nazis, and many became victims of Hitler’s ugly regime.
The Women at Hitler’s Table explores the lives of a smaller group of people who risked everything during the war: Hitler’s food tasters. They were not known until recently when Margot Wölk told her story for the first time in 2012. It is her account that inspired this novel.
Sadly, Wölk passed before the author, Rosella Postorino, had a chance to meet her, and so these events are not entirely accurate. However, what is included helps paint the picture of the fifteen women who risked their lives three times a day as they tasted Hitler’s food before it was delivered to him. He was paranoid about being poisoned, so women were randomly selected to try his food first – they had no choice in risking their lives.
The most appealing aspect of The Women At Hitler’s Table is that it’s an entirely different perspective of the war. Not only does it tell the tale of unsung heroes, it ties in with the current revelation of remembering the women who fought during the war – as this novel shows, in more ways than one. It’s certainly interesting when the protagonist states, ‘Women didn’t die as heroes.’ I feel that this represents Wolk’s opinion of herself and other food tasters, as perceived by Postorino, as the reason Wolk never shared her story until recently is that she felt ashamed and guilty of what she had done. She never even told her husband. Wolk could have possibly felt then that the group of women risking their lives to protect the Fürhrer – or, more realistically, to survive – were not heroes due to the nature of their task.
What I love most about this book was that none of the characters were likeable for me. There was so much conflict surrounding each person, particularly the protagonist Rosa, as she became involved with Ziegler, an SS Officer, while her husband was missing. While this was a blatant act of betrayal in more ways than one, it’s not hard to tell throughout the novel that Rosa is incredibly lonely. Her parents are dead, her husband Gregor is missing, and any friends she has are seemingly absent from the book, aside from her fellow food tasters. She moved to the country from Berlin, an entirely different setting, making her feel more lost than before.
This applied to the other food tasters as well, as they came from different backgrounds and have different opinions, creating conflict amongst the group – the most prominent example being that not all the women were on Hitler’s side. Of course, one can’t agree with every opinion, meaning that I was continually switching sides as they continued to argue over different things. Yet at the same time, a sisterhood was formed as they support each other through their worst times.
The way relationships are handled throughout the novel was interesting. Almost all relationships were strained, not completely relaxed. I think the most prominent example of this was Rosa’s affair with Ziegler, where it’s plain to see that there was little emotion between them. They’re both lonely and stressed, and that’s as far as it goes. Of course, any relationship with an SS officer is going to be complicated, as evidenced by Jewish Elfriede’s deportation despite Rosa begging him to halt it. He threatens her with a gun, strangles her, they’re both married and have gone through unimaginable experiences.
To start off with, I sympathized with Rosa through and through. But her character changed drastically throughout the course of the novel – understandable but still it didn’t do her any favours. I struggled to connect with her multiple times and strongly disagreed with many of her opinions. For example, when Leni was raped, Rosa was mad at Elfriede for informing the Ziegler and making a big deal out of it, causing more trouble. I suppose at this point in the novel she was very out of tune with herself, but I still think that’s no excuse for a decision like that.
Her changing character is further evidenced when she states: ‘The ability to adapt is the greatest resource of human beings, but the more I adapted, the less I felt human.’ These words strongly indicate how degraded she feels as she continues her work as a food taster. Without feeling ‘human,’ she felt a lack of emotion, hence her growing coldness and distance, such as her anger towards Elfriede for informing officers of Leni’s rape.
After a bad batch of honey causes a scare and Rosa collapses, the officers shut the women in a room for hours, sick staining their clothing and unable to leave for the toilet, resulting in them peeing in buckets. These degrading techniques would be enough to drive someone insane, especially when they’re let out the next morning and ordered to carrying on tasting straight away without cleaning themselves up. It’s a degrading treatment of the women that shows they are nothing but workers, not people.
But it’s a job that allows her to eat properly while the public starve.
Rosa’s growing ignorance does lead to interesting considerations that readers are left pondering. At one point, as she continued to put her head in the sand, she says:
‘I could have known about the mass graves, about the Jews who lay prone, huddled together, waiting for the shot to the back of the head, could have known about the earth shoveled onto their backs, and the wood ash and calcium hypochlorite so they wouldn’t stink, about the new layer of Jews who would lie down on the corpses and offer the backs of their heads in turn. I could have known about the children picked up by the hair and shot, about the kilometer-long lines of Jews or Russians—They’re Asian, they’re not like us–ready to fall into the graves or climb onto trucks to be gassed with carbon monoxide. I could have learned about it before the end of the war. I could have asked. I but I was afraid and couldn’t speak and didn’t want to know.’
The final sentence suggests Rosa’s reluctance to care about what’s happening around her, which can relate to the strict regime Germans were living under, her depression, or a combination of both. She is likely using the former as an excuse. There is also the indication that she is unlikely to care whether she lives or dies, seeing as she certainly doesn’t care about any of the prisoners.
Furthermore, the sentence ‘They’re Asian, they’re not like us’ shows her using the beliefs of the dictatorship as an alibi – they’re different from the Germans, so the regime has no excuse but to eliminate them. This attitude frustrated me continually throughout.
The issue with critiquing a book like this is that it’s hard to admit when you’re disappointed with the plot, which sadly I was. I felt like there were many loose ends left untied, like what happened to Ziegler. But of course, this is not through the fault of the author – Wölk didn’t know what happened to her real-life ‘colleagues,’ so Postorino didn’t, so it makes sense that Rosa didn’t either. However, it still left me with an unfinished conclusion.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, as it blended well-researched history with fiction smoothly, I was able to engage with it, following Rosa’s every step. But it’s not my favourite book. While I liked that most of the characters were disagreeable – it shows that the writer has captivated you enough to feel so strongly – Rosa’s ignorance of these events seriously bothered me.
Saying that, it can be said that this possibly reflects the attitude of many citizens who lived through the war, as those believing in Hitler and the regime who knew about the camps likely turned a blind eye (not all of course.) Just a theory, but it’s an interesting thought.