A guide to POTSDAM
Novel set in WW2 Germany (the fictional chronicle of one of Hitler’s food tasters)
26th May 2018
Her Hidden Life by V S Alexander, novel set in WW2 Germany. Published as The Taster in the USA.
In the Author’s Note, V S Alexander describes how he was inspired to write this novel after reading an article in the Associated Press (26/4/13) about Margot Woelk, a taster for Adolf Hitler. The article highlighted the phenomenon of having a team of several people who would sample food, destined for Hitler’s table, in order to check whether any kind of poison might have been added. The life of the Führer was well guarded by his henchmen but there were plenty of people on the look-out for any opportunity to kill him and end the dreadful war that was raging across the world.
The story is mainly set in the latter years of WW2, when Magda Ritter travels South from her home in Berlin in search of work. She arrives at her Uncle’s house in Berchtesgaden, who secures her the work as one of Hitler’s personal tasters. Essentially this is a fascinating insight into the imagined workings of life in the Hitler camp. From the beauty of the Berghof, nestled in the mountains outside Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, right across Germany to the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, in Prussia in the East of the country (now Poland and known as Kętrzyn). Magda is always on the lookout for cyanide with its giveaway smell of almonds; she is taught how to identify fungi, learning which can be deadly…
Magda is drawn to Karl Weber, an SS officer. Once each of them becomes aware of photos taken in Concentration Camps, they soon both discover that they have the wish to see Hitler annihilated as soon as possible. He is part of the von Stauffenberg team, working on ways to assassinate the Führer and he spills the beans to her at the drop of a hat.
We meet Hitler, Goebbels and other members of the SS team, including Eva Braun, who takes a bit of a shine to Magda. The story is well written and chugs around Germany between Hitler’s residences/camps, and back and forth to Berlin, offering a flavour of the times in Germany. It is certainly a fascinating subject for a novel.
For me, generally, the story was interesting, well researched but a little two dimensional: the passion and raging war was at times too languidly observed (though there are descriptions aplenty of bomb damaged buildings and rumblings in Hitler’s bunker). For example, as Magda leaves the Wolf’s Lair, she is ensconced in Hitler’s personal train heading for Berlin and she muses how “...the world seemed rather common place and colorless“. These train passengers are in fact fleeing from the Russians, an army of violent men intent on destroying and mutilating everything and everyone in their path; they are just a few hundred meters away. I think under such circumstances those would not be the thoughts going around my mind!
For a short period Magda is erroneously incarcerated in a concentration camp and a precious ring is taken off her upon entry. Once she is due to be released (because of course she shouldn’t have been there in the first place), the ring is found and duly returned. Really?
All in all, the to-ing and fro-ing between locations felt more like a chronicle than a passionate account of terrible times.
If you want to get some more flavour of the time, then try and get hold of a copy of Eva’s Cousin by Sibylle Knauss, which is a very atmospheric story set around this time. And of course the film “Downfall” will really take you into the everyday life of Hitler’s circle.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
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