Fans of historical fiction, like me, have read lots of books about people in the resistance during WWII or about those who politically opposed Hitler or those who hid Jews. Any decent thinking person will ask from time to time, “why did so many people allow this to happen?” I’ve gotten cynical enough to say that the bigger question is, “why did anyone at all take risks,” because most people either believed in what Hitler offered them or they were willing to go along for the ride and shut up. What The School for German Brides does is take a teenager from a small town, whose father is a storekeeper, a daughter of a wealthy powerful family in Berlin and a half-Jewish young woman and sees what happens when their lives intersect.
Hannah’s mother was a medical doctor, barred, as a woman, from practicing anything but midwifery under the Nazi regime. She quietly served people in their rural community with medicines she made, totally against her husband’s wishes and Nazi law.. But now, she is dead. She was hit by a car. Hannah’s father is sending her to Berlin to live with his brother and his wife, a very wealthy childless couple who are active in the party and friends with people in high places. Hannah’s mother talked only to her about her concerns about Hitler. Now, she is being groomed to meet and marry an eligible officer and attending “BDM” meetings (the league of German girls).
Hannah has a year of school to complete. The only person who is kind to her is Klara, daughter of a “good family” whose parents are similarly grooming her for the proper marriage to advance their political and social interests. Klara’s temperament makes her open to different people. She is artistic, loves fashion design and had dreams of Paris, but she is resigned to the fact she must conform in Nazi Germany to the expectations of her family and society. She will occasionally talk to Hannah about her frustrations with the changing role of “good” German women, now relegated to home and hearth and childbearing.
Tilde is older than Hannah and Klara. We meet her selling fabric and notions in a first floor shop in Berlin. Her mother is upstairs making clothing in their apartment for a living. Tilde is a first-degree Mischling according to Nazi genetic classification. Her father is a non-Jewish lawyer who married her Jewish mother. He divorced her when he understood he would lose his place in the world if he stayed married to her and Tilde has not seen him since. He remarried several months later. It is 1938 and the shop still has business. It is unclear whether customers realize Tilde is half-Jewish. Tilde also has a job teaching girls how to sew and Klara is a customer. Tilde goes to Klara’s house each week and she finds the artistic young woman a talented student. They are friendly, but not friends. As things are heating up in Berlin, with Jewish families disappearing and Kristallnacht only months away, we see Klara and Hannah heading closer to marriage to the right officers and Tilde falling in love with Samuel, a Polish Jew who makes stringed instruments and plays exquisitely.
This is not a book about the school for German Brides itself, although way at the end it appears and we learn about its purpose in preparing women to be good Nazi wives and mothers. It is about three young women, two of them still teenagers, who intersect and who are changed by their relationships. It explains how some people are inextricably drawn to doing what is right and to helping others try to survive, even as they conform outwardly to expectations. Runyan tells a compelling story and this is a “couldn’t put it down” book.