Resistance Women (2019, William Morrow) by Jennifer Chiaverini is set in Germany between 1929 and 1946. The three main characters, all friends, are women who work in various ways to thwart the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s horrific policies. One (non-fictional) character, Mildred Harnack, is an American professor, married to a German who works in the government’s economic ministry; together they try to get information out through the American embassy, and later other means. A German woman, again non-fictional, Greta Kuckhoff, works for a time translating Mein Kampf into English, convinced the unabridged edition will open the eyes of the British and others. (The Nazis realize its publication would be explosive and round up all copies and notes, though one is smuggled out.) A third character, a young Jewish doctoral student goes from being a star student, through expulsion to ghettoization and narrow escape for the crime of being Jewish.
I have learned a lot of history reading this book, and some of its warning bells ring loudly when I hear how certain leaders like Trump in the US and Duterte in the Philippines have become popular and are allowed, one step at a time, to pervert justice so thoroughly it seems breathtaking in retrospect. In the earlier 1930s, the resistance women kept thinking “it can’t get much worse”—but it always did, especially for the Jews. Eventually they realized that Hitler and his cronies will stop at nothing and can never be trusted or believed. The women took great risks to let the rest of the world (which for a long time seems to be idly standing by, ignoring reality) know what was going on and to help Jews escape the genocide. Along the way, we watch these brave women cope not just with fascism, but fall in love, attend university, dream of careers, have babies and work as teachers, writers, editors, and translators. All against an ominous backdrop and facing personal hardships and growing fears for themselves and their loved ones.
The fact that the characters are based in reality makes it that much more fascinating. An afterword by Chiaverini fills us in on what happened to Kuckhoff who survived, along with some of the other less central characters.
I love historical fiction and this one has introduced me to a writer who has no less than a dozen such books to her credit. I’d love to hear from others who’ve read this book and what they thought about it.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus.