Whom do you trust, whom do you love, and who can be saved? It is 1943-the height of the Second World War-and Berlin has essentially become a city of women. Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier's wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew. But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets. A high ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit. A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions. And then there's the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles. Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two. In this page-turning novel, David Gillham explores what happens to ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times, and how the choices they make can be the difference between life and death.
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August 06, 2012
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Excerpt from City of Women by David R. Gillham
The blind man taps his cane rhythmically. Three taps, three taps, three taps to gain the attention of passing Berliners. He is a cadaverous sentry with a shaved pate under an old soldier's cap, selling pencils from a canister strung about his neck. A pyramid of dots is stamped onto the armband he wears, and his round black goggles are like two holes poked through the day, letting the night bleed through. Sigrid fishes out the coin purse from her bag as she emerges from the U-Bahn stairwell, and drops a few groschen into his cup. "Bless you," he rasps in answer to the jangle. "Please choose a pencil." She thanks him, but when he turns his head in the direction of her voice, something behind the blindness of those goggles seems to mark her. She puts the pencil into her handbag and crosses the street at the signal.
Tickets for the matinee are three and a half marks now. Up fifty pfennings. But Sigrid pays he increase without complaint. Today's feature is titles Soldiers of tomorrow. The poster casement displays eager, towheaded boys in soldierly Hitler-Jugend outfits, charging across a field with wooden rifles, practicing gymnastics, or peering down the barrel of a heavy-caliber machine guns, under the smiling instruction of an army officer. But what's playing makes no difference. She not here to see a film.
Inside, the usual wartime patrons greet her ticket purchase with vacant appraisal. The lobby smells of mildew and unswept rugs, and the once-grand chandelier lighting is dim and spotty with missing filaments. The sweets counter is empty. Nothing to sell, like the rest of the town. The coat-check porter is reading a sporting magazine to ease his boredom, since the heating is poor and the weather is far too raw for anyone to shed their overcoats. But there's a crowd waiting for the ushers to open the doors to the auditorium. In a city where the food is bad and getting worse, where rationing has emptied the shop windows, in a city slowly suffocating on the gritty effluence of another year of war, movie houses are still places to spend a few marks without cutting coupons from a ration book, or waiting one's life away in a queue.
Ashen-faced pensioners are bent over their canes. Factory women between shifts, with their hair tied up in turbans, pass a single cigarette among themselves. Hard-eyed street whores are on the lookout for takers among the off-duty soldiers. Hausfrauen clutch their heavy purses on their laps, and wait patiently, relieved to escape their children and the duties of home for a few hours.