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Archive for Sunday, March 2, 2008

Woman ensnared by Nazi’s birth project

March 2, 2008

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The Nazis' ghastly death machinery is widely known; its birth industry is seldom spoken of.

"Lebensborn" was Heinrich Himmler's secret project to use certain young women to help increase the population and breed a purer race. The program began in 1935 with German women who would have blond, blue-eyed children, often by SS officers. Later it included kidnappings of fair-haired girls, especially from Poland, for the same purpose.

"My Enemy's Cradle" is a novel about a young woman with those Aryan looks (but a secret half-Jewish identity) who becomes ensnared in the plan.

When crackdowns began against Europe's Jews, Cyrla's father had sent her away from Poland to live in Amsterdam with her Dutch relatives. Now 19 but still naive, Cyrla shuns warnings and behaves with youthful impetuousness. Nothing turns out as she expects.

She finds herself trapped in a "Lebensborn" maternity home. The rescue she's expecting doesn't materialize, and Cyrla spends week after week fearing discovery, trying to determine whom to trust, striving for some normalcy, and hoping.

This is a book that lands squarely in the category of "good story." It is mostly the force of Cyrla's character that drives the tale along its melodramatic path. From the first chapter of Sara Young's "My Enemy's Cradle" (Harcourt, $24), Cyrla reels from trauma to trauma. She's sensitive and poetic, not pragmatic. Her emotional flares and refusal to think rationally usually make things worse.

Still, we root for her. We've all been that age. And she is a good and caring soul.

"My Enemy's Cradle" is the first full-length novel for Young, whose previous books were for children, written under the name Sara Pennypacker. She chose a terribly challenging subject for her debut in adult fiction, and it is a brave work in several ways: the topic itself, the direct discussions of sex, the scope of the issues it encompasses. Her passion and her desire to give voice to innumerable silent victims shine through. More nuance and complexity would have elevated the work, though.

It's a compelling tale anyway, grounded in reality, rooted in history. Abundant details of food and clothes and household things help bring the story to life. References to people of the era - Garbo and Gary Cooper and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret - seem startling in their familiarity. These names that are still part of our culture today underscore that Cyrla's lifetime was not very distant at all.

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