A haunted past: Amherst writer’s new novel explores the troubled life of a WWII refugee in 1950s America

  • “Shadows of Berlin” is the new novel by Amherst historical fiction writer David Gillham.

  • David Gillham

  • The ruins of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin in 1945. In “Shadows of Berlin,” the novel’s main character has fled Berlin and ended up in New York, where she struggles to rebuild her life. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA/VIA WIKIPEDIA

  • Golfer Ben Hogan in feted with a parade in New York City in 1953 after one of his numerous tournament wins that year. “Shadows of Berlin” is set partly in New York in the 1950s. Wikipedia/Library of Congress

  • Berlin in May 1945, amid the Allied takeover of the city. PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN/VIA WIKIMEDIA

  • After the nightmare: A photo from 1945 shows servicemen near the Brandenburg Gate in occupied Berlin after World War II ended. PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/31/2022 12:57:43 PM
Modified: 3/31/2022 12:56:48 PM

Historical fiction writer David Gillham has written three novels set in the World War II era, an interest he traces to hearing stories about the war from his father, who served in the Army during the conflict, and his sense that the war and its aftermath — and the horrors of the Holocaust — still resonate in many ways.

“It’s hard to explain,” Gillham, who lives in Amherst, said during a recent phone call. “It wouldn’t be accurate to say I identify with it. But I have a passion to understand it.”

That passion underlies Gillham’s newest and third novel, “Shadows of Berlin,” a story centered on Rachel Perlman, a Jewish German-American woman in her late 20s who grew up in Nazi Germany, barely survived World War II, and is now trying to rebuild her life in New York City in 1955.

But Rachel, born Rashka Morgenstern, can’t escape her past. Her mother, a talented painter, was consumed by the Holocaust, and the horror Rachel witnessed in Germany continues to give her nightmares, leaving a barrier between her and her American husband, Aaron, a well-meaning but socially clumsy guy who can’t quite figure out his wife.

“I’m just a Jew from Flatbush,” Aaron has a tendency to say. “What do I know anyhow?”

Also living in New York is Rachel’s uncle, Fritz, who has helped her, to some degree, find her footing in a new country but has his own baggage from the war. He’s a shifty character, a former art dealer now living hand to mouth who wheedles money from Rachel by playing on the theme of family loyalty.

And when Fritz discovers an old painting by Rachel’s mother in a Manhattan pawnshop, a striking portrait of a woman who later became a nemesis to Rachel and her mother in Berlin, Rachel’s memories of the war — and her guilt about what she had to do to survive it — trigger a renewed crisis, shattering her belief that she could forget her past and reinvent herself as an American housewife and mother.

At its heart, “Shadows of Berlin,” published by Sourcesbook Landmark, is about trauma, survivor’s guilt, and the attempt by American Jews of that era to come to terms with the Holocaust, even as survivors of the genocide attempt to bury their memories. But it’s also a story of redemption, as Rachel and Aaron struggle to find a way to the love between them, however imperfect it may be.

“Rachel and Aaron think they can save each another,” Gillham says. “She’s looking to create a new identity for herself, and he’s feeling guilty about missing the war [Aaron served Stateside in the army and never saw combat], and he thinks giving this fragile refugee a chance for a new life is a kind of atonement for that.”

He says he also wanted to set the book in New York in the 1950s because so many Jewish refugees ended up in the city, and because “It was in the 1950s when [Holocaust] survivors finally started talking  about what happened to them. There had been 10 years of silence before that.”

The new novel is “a progression,” Gillham adds, from his previous book, “Annelies,” a speculative novel that posits Anne Frank, the famous Dutch-German teenage diarist who died in the Holocaust, instead survives the war and returns to Holland. His fictional Anne is wracked with guilt that she has lived and her mother and sister have died, “and that’s something I wanted to revisit,” he said.

‘U-boats’ and ‘catchers’

Gilliam also plumbs some of the ground he covered in his first book, “City of Women” from 2012, a New York Times bestseller about a German woman in wartime Berlin who begins helping Jews hide from the Gestapo.

As in that story, “Shadows of Berlin” is told partly in flashbacks, with scenes that recall Rachel’s privileged but lonely childhood when she was raised by her widowed mother, Lavinia, who sees her daughter mostly as a hindrance to her artistic career.

Then the Nazis take power, and Rachel and Lavinia see their lives continually marginalized and degraded by the Reich’s antisemitic laws. Eventually they become “U-boats,” hiding where they can in Berlin while dodging the Gestapo and their “catchers”: Jews who are granted a more comfortable existence by the Nazis in return for identifying fellow Jews trying to live undercover.

This is terrain Gillham knows well, and the scenes from wartime Berlin are rife with fear, cold, hunger, desperation and betrayal.

“Rashka has learned to live with leaking roofs and drafty windows, polluted plumbing, bedbugs, and the skittering of rats from the gutters,” he writes. “But she can see how this daily squalor is paring down her mother. Whittling her to bony poverty, carving her face into an ax blade.”

A decade later in New York, Rachel, a painter herself, feels obligated at first to continue her mother’s artistic legacy, and she finds a gallery that will sell and show her initial work; that impresses Aaron, a working class guy who puts in long hours as the manager of a Manhattan restaurant.

But her attempt to wring meaning from the ashes of Europe and her mother’s death seems a lie to Rachel: “She was still pretending to be an artist. The human plumes of color she was producing were nothing. ... Their impact was as meaningless as candle flames. A cough could blow them out…. Maybe she could be what her husband expected her to be. A wife and a mother.”

It’s not all Sturm und Drang. Gillham offers a lively portrait of New York in the 1950s, with its noisy streets and busy restaurants, and televisions now appearing in homes. During an early visit to Katz’s Delicatessen, a landmark on New York’s Lower East Side, Rachel is “dizzied by how expansively American the place is … and its overwhelming plenty,” from platters of pastrami, corned beef and lox to rows and rows of rye bread, challah and bagels.

At a boisterous family gathering at the Brooklyn house where Aaron grew up, there are a good number of laughs, as Aaron and his bohemian sister, Naomi, needle each other, an aged uncle falls asleep on the couch after too much wine, and Aaron’s mother, Miriam, drops none-too-subtle hints about wanting to be a grandmother.

Yet Rachel still feels apart from it all: “[H]er sense of family has been shattered. She can only press her nose against the glass and peer through.” Her isolation is reinforced by scenes in which her mother’s ghost appears and speaks with her.

Extensive research

Gillham, who once worked in New York as a book wholesaler, made additional trips to the city in recent years to do research for “Shadows.” He also examined the history of Jewish catchers in wartime Berlin, including the notorious Stella Ingrid Goldschlag, a woman whose blonde good looks let her pass as an Aryan; by some reports, she denounced hundreds of Jews, perhaps even thousands.

In its flashback scenes, “Shadows of Berlin” becomes in part a literary thriller as Rachel and her mother try to hide in the city, in particular from a notorious catcher known as The Red Angel; and the tension also mounts as the story behind Rachel’s postwar guilt comes more clearly into focus.

Yet in New York, Gillham also sketches poignant moments in which Aaron and Naomi, however awkwardly, reach out to Rachel to try and understand what she went through in Germany, or at least to let her know they want to help if they can. And when Rachel faces another unexpected reminder of her past, she’ll have to decide how to live in the present.

It’s an empathetic portrait of a woman for whom there are no easy answers, and who must learn to trust others — and herself — again.

“I always look for the gray in my characters,” Gillham says. “Life is never black and white.”

As he writes in an afterword, “I don’t think that grief and guilt are easily overcome. A person can spend a lifetime with them. ... But in the end, I do want the reader to believe [the novel] is also a story of hope. Because hope is a vital regenerative force.”

There will be a book launch for “Shadows of Berlin” at Amherst Books on April 5 (the book’s publication date) beginning at 5 p.m. Gillham’s website is davidrgillham.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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