Updated: Jul 23, 2020
"They called it the Wolfsschanze, the Wolf's Lair. 'Wolf' was his nickname. As hapless as Little Red Riding Hood, I had ended up in his belly. A legion of hunters was out looking for him, and to get him in their grips they would gladly slay me as well." – The Women At Hitler’s Table
Having studied modern history at University, I tend to gravitate towards the events of World War I & II as both periods hold so much incomprehensible significance. There are a multitude of reasons why the World Wars should remain at the forefront of historical studies. They were the defining eruptions that caused landslide shifts in the economical and societal plates that made up the 20th century landscape. Whilst maintaining the upmost respect for the unfathomable number of lives lost and the sheer bravery of those fighting on enemy lines and the home front, there is an undeniable, underlying element of excitement to this field of study. By examining the Wars you will come to discover the origins of society and how its institutions and cultural compositions came to be. It can be unnerving, but also important, to observe the level of deception, rivalry and utter strength that lies buried within mankind and human nature.
All aspects of these studies are both thrilling and raw. There is a lot that we can learn from the daily struggles and trauma that were so prevalent, enabling all of us in the present to take perspective on what we may be experiencing now. It may seem grandiose and exaggerated to make these comparisons, but a healthy dose of reality is never a bad thing. It keeps you on the right track and encourages one to just get on with it no matter how bleak things may seem.
With this in mind, my curiosity was piqued when I spied, “The Women At Hitler’s Table” by Italian author Rosella Postorino. It was sat on its lonesome in Asda of all places, but it instantly drew my eye and I figured it would be rude to leave it behind. This novel presented an exceptional and unexpected outlook of the final few years of World War II. It is told, not only from a German viewpoint, but also through the eyes of a young German woman on the home front.
The narrative follows the female protagonist, Rosa Sauer, who is called on to join the seemingly 'prestigious' legion of women who were to become Adolf Hitler’s personal food tasters. The story recounts her struggles, her heartache and the bitter existence of trying to establish one’s identity in such unsettling times. The women she meets are vivacious and full of complexities and the intense anxieties of what they would need to do are laid out on the table in all its grimness. It is overwhelmingly hard to swallow at points, and will certainly leave the stomach slightly queasy. Despite the occasional piquant and even ambrosial occasion, there is that gentle reminder of the ever-present danger that these heroines are constantly exposed to.
But, that is only the tip of the iceberg when one comes to the disturbing realization that this novel was inspired entirely by true events. Yes, the premise of this story is based on the very real team of approximately 15 women that were employed to taste every single one of the Fuhrer’s dishes to check if the allies had managed to infiltrate food shipments with poison. Sold as a position of prestige, a badge of honour, this task was not made for the faint of heart (or weak stomachs). This incredible revelation only came to light recently in 2013 when one of these former taste testers - then 95 year old Margot Wölk - revealed all in an intimate interview with German magazine, Der Speigal. She recalled:
“The food was delicious, only the best vegetables, asparagus, bell peppers, everything you can imagine. And always with a side of rice or pasta. But this constant fear — we knew of all those poisoning rumors and could never enjoy the food. Every day we feared it was going to be our last meal.” — Margot Wölk
Wölk had been hand picked at the age of 24 in 1941 and was housed three kilometers from Hitler’s Eastern Front headquarters. From then on she would work to taste the Fuhrer’s food for two and a half long years. She kept this secret for over 60 years. Despite not being a Nazi herself, she was in essence forced to become an accomplice and server to the dictator, despite never having met him during her tenure as food taster.
She became both an aide and a victim and it is this sense of moral dilemma that becomes a focal point in Postorino’s work. The reader is subjected to Rosa’s internal debate of where her true allegiances lie. This is only exacerbated by the potential burgeoning relationship with one of the top commanders and soldiers directed to control this group of women. The commentary on her social status (a middle class secretary from the big city of Berlin) is also an interesting point of contention. This becomes one of the route causes of tension between her and other key characters at the beginning of the novel. The additional theme of motherhood, or otherwise lack of, is strung throughout, whilst also touching on the tender topics of abortion and adultery.
Without wanting to give too much away, this is a delicate novel, sprinkled with audacious and authentic characters that will bring a ghost of a smile to your face and a lump in your throat. I can’t even begin to imagine the constant state of fear and pressure that these women faced in reality. That said, Postorino chronicles their imagined state of being expertly and beautifully. To say this story leaves your stomach in knots would be an understatement of the highest degree. A thought provoking read and certainly one that will linger in your mind for many days after.
Definitely one to sink your teeth into (with caution) purchase this book via the following link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Women-at-Hitlers-Table/
Until the next review, bye for now,