Shad­ows of Berlin: A Novel

By – July 5, 2022

There are a host of books writ­ten about the expe­ri­ence of liv­ing through the hor­rors of the Holo­caust. How­ev­er, most of these works end when free­dom begins for their char­ac­ters. There are a much few­er num­ber that take on direct­ly the last­ing trau­ma of the Shoah, explor­ing the way that its lega­cy scars and lingers. Shad­ows of Berlin is one such thought­ful attempt at this type of Holo­caust nov­el. Through the sto­ry of Rachel Perl­man, author David Gill­ham explores the nature of trau­ma and the role that a night­mar­ish past can play in stilt­ing our dreams for the future.

Shad­ows of Berlin takes place in two time­lines. The first occurs in 1950s New York, where pro­tag­o­nist Rachel is mar­ried to her lov­ing but flawed hus­band Aaron and the two of them are attempt­ing to nav­i­gate the city. Gill­ham includes a host of well-drawn, rich char­ac­ters and engag­ing sub­plots that allow him to explore many tan­gen­tial­ly relat­ed themes, includ­ing racism and class divi­sions; how­ev­er, the main source of ten­sion for the cou­ple is over whether or not to have chil­dren. Rachel is still strug­gling with demons from the Holo­caust and Aaron is like­wise wracked with guilt over his safe place­ment on an Amer­i­can base out west dur­ing World War II. The nov­el exam­ines how the cou­ple wres­tles with these feel­ings in the hopes of com­ing up with a deci­sion about parenthood.

The sec­ond time­line takes place in flash­backs, as the appear­ance of a strange paint­ing from Rachel’s past trans­ports the read­er to Nazi Ger­many. There we fol­low Rash­ka — Rachel’s name before arriv­ing in the US — as she attempts to sur­vive the war. In order to live, Rash­ka and her moth­er become U‑Boats, a term that con­notes hid­ing in plain sight and attempt­ing to pass as Ger­man. This term will like­ly be unfa­mil­iar to most read­ers and Gill­ham does a good job exam­in­ing its many facets. When Rash­ka is caught, she has to make a heart wrench­ing deci­sion about whether or not to help the Nazis.

The flash­backs are very com­pelling; Gill­ham does a mag­nif­i­cent job of blur­ring the lines between good and evil, sub­tly rais­ing impor­tant philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions. These episodes give col­or and moti­va­tion to the char­ac­ters of the 1950s, allow­ing the read­er to empathize with Rachel’s plight and to under­stand both her list­less­ness and her sense of urgency in recov­er­ing the new­ly dis­cov­ered painting.

Gill­ham gives us a mem­o­rable pro­tag­o­nist in Rachel, whose sto­ry will stay with you long after you fin­ish read­ing the book. Her tale of per­se­ver­ance will leave you ask­ing the ques­tion: To what lengths would you go to in order to sur­vive, and how might the trau­ma of that deci­sion stay with you well into the future?

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of David R. Gillham 

<p>1. Aaron is extreme­ly impa­tient for chil­dren. Why is Rachel reluc­tant to start a fam­i­ly? Does Aaron respect her reasoning? 

<p>2. Rachel’s uncle, Feter Fritz, is an impor­tant char­ac­ter in Rachel’s life. Yet he is often manip­u­la­tive and self-serv­ing in his behav­ior toward her. Why do you think she puts up with him and con­tin­ues to go out of her way to main­tain his affections?
<p>3. In many ways, Rachel resists think­ing of her­self as trau­ma­tized. What pre­vents her from feel­ing wor­thy” of her strug­gles with men­tal health? <p>4.Characterize the Red Angel. Did your opin­ion of Ange­li­ka change as you learned more of her sto­ry? In Rachel’s posi­tion, would you have accept­ed her help in New York City ten years after the end of the war? 
<p>5. What does Aaron expect Rachel to get from her appoint­ments with her ther­a­pist? What does she actu­al­ly achieve through therapy? 
<p>6. What is the root of the rival­ry between Aaron and his cousin Ezra? What does the char­ac­ter of their rival­ry say about Aaron? How does Rachel react to their rivalry?
<p>7. Had you heard of Jews liv­ing as U‑boats dur­ing the war before read­ing the book? How did hid­ing in plain sight pro­vide safe­ty, and how did it increase danger?<p>8. Com­pare Rachel’s and Aaron’s rela­tion­ships to Judaism. How do they deal with the dif­fer­ences in their experiences?
<p>9. Why does Rachel become so invest­ed in Nao­mi and Tyrell’s rela­tion­ship? Do you think she helps them?
<p>10. Rachel feels respon­si­ble for car­ry­ing on the lega­cy of the many Jews who lost their lives, includ­ing her moth­er. What actions does she take to ful­fill this respon­si­bil­i­ty? How do you con­tribute to the lega­cy of your ancestors?