Sometimes life presents you with a slate of bad choices—though some are braver than others. In Motherland, Maria Hummel, author of several novels and a former Stegner Fellow in poetry, enters relatively unfamiliar literary territory to tell the story of one so-called Mitläufer family: German citizens who would never have personally countenanced the terrible abuses that Jews suffered, but nonetheless went along with the Nazi regime. They paid for it in the end—if not as heavily as their Jewish counterparts.

The Kappus family has already gone through heartbreak: Liesl and Frank are recently married after the death of Frank’s first wife (in childbirth with their third son). When Frank is drafted into medical military service, Liesl is left alone to care for his three sons during the last months of WWII, with the front growing ever closer and food and resources becoming more scarce.

Hummel gathered her raw material from the life of her grandfather, reflected in letters written during the war and discovered in an attic wall. Just as Londoners suffered under the Blitz, German citizens spent the last year of the war living as no human being should, amid the horrors of daily air raids and the loss of those they loved. Hummel somehow manages, without sensationalism, to drive home the humanity and suffering of the people who are frequently considered only as the enemy.

Like its characters, Motherland displays little awareness of the Jewish experience, a fact that may trouble some readers. In her afterword, Hummel argues that omission was necessary in order to present her characters’ lives authentically, asking “What did [German citizens] know and when did they know it?” Perhaps only now is the world ready to offer understanding. Without canceling out our sympathy for those targeted by the Nazis, this humane and compelling story may extend it to those who (often unwittingly) assisted in some of humanity’s worst crimes—and who themselves got flicked by the tail of the beast.

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