The Best and Worst of Us: Jennifer Coburn and the Evils of the Nazi Era


A saturated market? One World War II novel too many? If you’ve had thoughts like these, be prepared to think again. In Jennifer Coburn’s Cradles of the Reich (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2022), the Nazi regime continues to fascinate and terrify.

Coburn grew up in New York City in the 1970s. The effect of World War II on her Jewish family was very much in evidence. She explains: “Although my father grew up in Brooklyn, his family had a plan to survive the anticipated Nazi invasion of the United States during World War II. His Polish-Jewish father had seen enough violence against his people to never feel completely safe, even in his new homeland. My father was a toddler, and the plan included his adoption by the Kihl family, German neighbors in their two-family house. My aunt Bernice would be sent to a convent upstate that had room for nine gentile-passing Jewish girls. But my aunt Rita walked with a limp from polio, so there was no hope for her. The three children grew up with a lot of fear. My father told me of this many times as I was growing up. This was more than family history; it was a warning: ‘We are Jewish and must always have an escape plan.’”

When the family’s worst fear – a Nazi invasion of America – was brought to life on the screen in the TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (published in 1962, adapted for television in 2015), Coburn knew she had to watch. Through it, she learned about Lebensborn, an organization created by Heinrich Himmler to increase the number of “racially pure” children in Germany. Maternity homes were established, where carefully selected women would give birth.

Cradles of the Reich brings together three German women in a Lebensborn breeding home in Bavaria. Irma, a nurse, hopes to rebuild her life but is increasingly alarmed by the system she is enabling. Gundi is unmarried and pregnant. She’s a poster child for Aryan beauty, but secretly a resister, and the father of her child is Jewish. Hilde could not be more different. She’s a believer in Hitler and the Third Reich, having a calculated affair with a Nazi official, delighted to be singled out for a place in the Lebensborn home.

“Writing Hilde, the ‘Hitler Girl,’ was challenging,” says Coburn, “because it meant embodying a character that would consider my Jewish family Untermenschen, subhuman. I tried to walk the razor-thin line of exploring the psyche of a highly damaged person without excusing or justifying her behavior. Before I wrote a single word of this novel, I did a character sketch of Hilde and imagined her as pathetic as she was cruel. In the writing, I found her actions deplorable. And my goodness, she is a delusional character. At the same time, I feel like Hilde’s family life and childhood traumas made it nearly impossible for her to rise above her circumstances.”

Through Hilde, Coburn touches on another aspect of Nazi cruelty in a striking episode where she remembers a disabled girl she knew in the past. “It was tough to write about,” Coburn acknowledges, while adding, “It was important for me to include this flashback, though, because the Nazis targeted the disabled as well as ethnic and religious minorities. The ‘Aktion T4’ program murdered 300,000 people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and I wanted to spotlight that. It also sheds light on Hilde’s backstory. My cousin has a son with severe cerebral palsy, and he told me that reading the section about Ursula was difficult. He meant this as a compliment, because if it wasn’t shocking and awful, it wouldn’t accurately portray the cruelty of Nazi culture.”

The personal connections Jennifer Coburn has with her subject matter make the story vibrant and relevant, but readers without such close ties to the history will still feel the past resonate with the present day. I read the book sitting alongside my teenage daughter whose summer reading included Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both books remind us that fascism and the control of women’s bodies are problems we continue to grapple with.

All of which is not to say that Cradles of the Reich is a depressing or heavy read, alarming and unflinching as it is. Above all, it is a character-driven story. Coburn explains: “The three women represent the different choices German gentiles faced as the Nazis gained power. Like Gundi, they could have resisted and fought Nazi oppression. They could have gone the way of Hilde, a Nazi true believer. Or, like Irma, they might have kept their heads down. I wanted to show these perspectives through female characters – then place them under one roof. Each woman has her own needs and desires, all which conflict with one another’s.”

For her next book, Coburn will explore another aspect of the Nazi regime’s atrocities, in the story of “two women who change the course of one another’s lives through their meeting at the Theresienstadt ‘model camp’ in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.” She explains, “The camp was used for Nazi propaganda. It’s where Red Cross inspectors were taken to see how well the Jewish people were being treated as prisoners. The Nazis even staged a film there entitled Hitler Gives a City to the Jews. In reality, Theresienstadt was a vermin-infested way station to death camps in the east. Prisoners were used as slave laborers for the Nazi war effort. At the same time, the camp had a robust arts scene because it was where many of Europe’s most prominent musicians, writers, poets, and visual artists were sent. I am intrigued by how the Nazis used propaganda so effectively, but I am even more fascinated by how the brave prisoners of Theresienstadt used art as a form of resistance.”

Coburn believes these stories remain popular “because they demonstrate the best and worst of humanity. Ordinary people rose to heroism and succumbed to evil.” Her passion is evident when she tells me, “The research is breaking my heart, but I feel strongly that the story must be told.”

It’s clear Jennifer Coburn is not finished with World War II. And neither should we be.

About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels and an editor for the Historical Novels Review.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 102 (November 2022)

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