Katherine Arthaud, Contributor
Happy spring — even though the temperature feels more like winter at the moment. But the sun is shining, and the sky is mostly blue, so it isn’t inconceivable that spring will really spring.
But what about books? What have you been reading? Anything good?
I just finished a hefty work of nonfiction that my friend Sally in Florida handed me one day at the tennis shop, informing me that she had just finished it and thought I should give it a whirl.
My first thought was that it didn’t look much like a beach read.
“All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, the True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler” is a Pen America winner, a National Book Critics Circle award winner and one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2021. Impressive, yes, but as I said, I wasn’t sure it was the right book at the right time.
I had just finished “The Hotel Nantucket,” a delightfully refreshing romantic drama by Elin Hilderbrand, queen of the beach read, about an old, abandoned, Gilded Age hotel that has just been rehabbed into a spectacular luxury state-of-the art resort destination and the guests and staff whose lives revolve around it, including the ghost of a former chambermaid.
So, I did need a new book. And to get in a car and go find a bookstore seemed exhausting somehow. In the past, I would always pack extra books in my suitcase to read on vacation, but with the money airlines charge these days for overweight bags, I decided to only bring the one: that easily digestible, perfect, lightweight, beachy paperback. And so, yes, being handed a fresh book that day at the tennis courts felt serendipitous. Except, well … this book? World War II, Nazi Germany and the German resistance to Hitler?
Not exactly what I had had in mind for the lounge chair by the pool.
There are many, many positive things one could say about this book, one of which is the way its author, Rebecca Donner breaks up the narrative into smallish segments, making the story easier to process than had it been written in long, dense narrative blocks. Also, there is something approaching poetic in the way Donner pauses and restarts the narrative. Plus, the inclusion of photographs of people and of fragments of original documents (including diary entries, letters, notes smuggled out of a Berlin prison, etcetera) render the book more personal, more engaging, more artful than your typical history book or biography.
“Her aim,” the book begins, “was self-erasure. The more invisible she was, the better her chances of survival. … She was at the harrowing center of the German resistance, but she wasn’t German, nor was she Polish or French. She was American — conspicuously so. … The nature of her work required absolute secrecy. She didn’t dare tell her family, who were scattered across the towns and dairy farms of the Midwest. They remained bewildered that she, at 26, had jumped aboard a steamer ship and crossed the Atlantic, leaving behind everyone she loved. … She preferred anonymity so I will whisper her name: Mildred Harnack.”
Mildred Harnack (Donner’s great-great-aunt) was born Sept. 16, 1902, in Milwaukee, Wis. In 1932, she held her first clandestine meeting in her German apartment with “a small band of political activists that grew into the largest underground resistance group in Berlin by the end of the decade.” They helped Jews escape, collaborated in writing leaflets denouncing Hitler and calling for revolution, and secretly circulated these leaflets throughout the city of Berlin. During World War II, this group collaborated with a Soviet espionage movement that was conspiring to defeat Hitler and couriered top-secret information to the Allies.
As it turned out, very few outlived the war.
Despite Harnack’s wish to remain invisible, she left, says Donner, “a trail for us to follow.” We learn about her family of origin, her marriage (to a German and fellow resistor), her friendships, her special gift of discerning who might be a possible recruit for the movement and who could not be trusted, her unspeakable bravery, her loyalty, her dedication, her strength, her time in prison. This was a woman who sacrificed everything — life, safety, comfort, family — to stand against as best she was able the evil blossoming around her.
It is an eerily intimate portrait that Donner paints of an extraordinary ordinary human being who might well have otherwise remained obscured by the shadows of her time and the sheer madness and confusion of those days.
In the end, the reader learns about a number of heroically courageous, able souls who worked alongside Harnack and in their own right to sabotage the meteoric rise of the Nazi Party. One individual whose story is braided into those of Mildred, her husband Arvid and others is a child, Don, whose father, a Kansas native, was working at the U.S. embassy at the time.
We first meet 11-year-old Don skittering across the city with a blue knapsack to meet with his tutor, who is also American. “The boy is her courier, in the language of espionage. An 11-year-old spy.” Once his lessons are finished, his tutor “helps him with his coat and slips a piece of paper into his knapsack. Sometimes the paper looks like a reading list. Sometimes it looks like a recipe. Sometimes it looks like a letter, which she signs Mildred or, simply, M.”
This book is a masterpiece — not one I will soon forget. And I couldn’t help but notice, with chills icing my spine even in the heat of a Florida sun, how much 1940s Germany parallels some of what we are now witnessing in our own country. Like, for instance, the pressure the Nazis put on German women to leave their careers and professions to remain in the home, serve their husbands and give birth to as many children as possible — reminiscent of the war on women going on now in the U.S. with the systematic stripping away of women’s reproductive rights. Also, the banning of books. The prejudice and marginalization of certain ethnic groups. And the marginalization of LGBTQ+ people. And more. Yikes.
Oh, and just two more things:
- “An accurate tally of the deaths at concentration camps is impossible. Available evidence indicates that two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe—or six million Jews—were murdered.”
- The title, “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days,” is from a Goethe poem that Harnack, shackled in her cell at Gefangnis III, was translating into English with a secret pencil stub in her last days alive. On the margin of page 74, Mildred had written:
“In all the frequent troubles of our days
A God gave compensation — more his praise
In looking sky- and heavenward as duty
In sunshine and in virtue and in beauty.”
This book is “a real-life thriller,” says the New York Times. It’s true. I highly recommend it.