In 1932, 11-year-old Margaret Werner arrived in the Soviet Union with her parents Carl and Elisabeth. Faced with the choice of eking out a living in Depression-era Detroit or taking a temporary one-year assignment to work for Ford Motor Company's new manufacturing plant in Gorky, outside of Moscow, Carl had chosen the latter. The decision proved to be disastrous. Carl was arrested in 1936 by the secret police and never heard from again, leaving his wife and daughter impoverished and struggling to survive. Seven years later, Margaret was arrested for espionage and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. It would be three painful decades before she was able to come home to the United States.
Margaret's son Karl Tobien tells her improbable story in Dancing Under the Red Star, maintaining his mother's 17-year-old voice throughout the book. Tobien describes the unimaginable deprivations, malnutrition and cruelty suffered in Siberian labor camps; the larger context of World War II and the Cold War are hinted at only broadly. (Curiously absent is any discussion of what if anything Ford or the U.S. government did to secure the return of the Werner family.) At its crux, this is Margaret's story, a prison memoir of survival and faith and undiminished optimism. During her years in the Gulag, Margaret becomes a member of a prison dance troop and finds miracles in the everyday ability to carry on. After her release, Margaret marries a German POW she had met during her internment. Finally allowed to leave for East Germany, the pair, along with their baby son and Elisabeth, takes the opportunity to make an inspired escape to West Germany, and ultimately back to America. Margaret Werner is the only American woman to survive Stalin's Gulag. Her life, randomly caught in the brutal Soviet regime, is at turns bleak and horrifying. However, it is also a testament to one woman's unshakable courage and faith. Stacy Perman is a journalist in New York and the author of Spies Inc.: Business Innovation from Israel's Masters of Espionage (Financial Times/Prentice Hall).