In My Enemy’s Cradle (Harcourt; $21), children’s novelist Sara Young (also known as Sara Pennypacker) takes an interesting topic — the little-known Nazi breeding houses — and describes one young woman’s experience of pregnancy there. Her engrossing, fast-paced adult fiction debut reads like the movie version of a good book.
The novel opens in 1941, with the imposition of the Nuremberg laws in Nazi-annexed Holland. Nineteen-yearold Cyrla has been hiding her Jewish roots ever since her Polish Jewish father sent her to live with her Christian aunt and uncle in Holland to protect her from the worsening situation for Jews at home. Somehow, someone in their Schiedam neighborhood seems to know that Cyrla is Jewish and slips a threatening note under the family’s door the morning after Cyrla’s cherished and nearly identical Dutch cousin Anneke has died from a self-induced abortion while pregnant with a German soldier’s baby.
Cyrla assesses her situation: living as a known Jew in occupied Holland is impossible, but passing for her cousin is not. At her aunt’s prodding, Cyrla switches identities with her Aryan cousin. With the Jewish Cyrla officially dead, she can take Anneke’s place at a Lebensborn, a maternity home for Aryan girls carrying German babies.
Cyrla hastily arranges her own pregnancy in order to pass for her cousin and manages to convince nurses of errors at her cousin’s initial exam to make that data match her own. The situation is obviously absurd: a Jewish woman moves into the midst of the Nazi machine, eating heaping bowls of oatmeal as she wonders what has happened to her family. The plot here is far-fetched, but the novel is set in a mad time. As unbelievable as these contrivances are, many stories of Holocaust survival are no less impossible.
The novel takes place from September of 1941 to June of 1942, 10 of the darkest months in the history of European Jewry. That period is often noted for numbers murdered, or battlefield statistics. This book observes the era through a different, softer lens, nonetheless edged in Nazi brutality. Pregnant women are coddled at the Lebensborn, but are neither free to leave nor to keep their babies, who are adopted either by the father or by a “good” Nazi family. Imperfect babies, perhaps deaf or with cleft palates, are quietly killed.
The Lebensborn houses should be part of the dialogue about the fate of women in wartime, and Young fills hers with an international cast of women. Whether the story of a Lebensborn needs the added drama of a Jewish protagonist remains debatable. Nonetheless, Young is to be applauded for bringing to light this fascinating aspect of World War II history.
Liz Kilstein, a Dorot Fellow, lives in Jerusalem.