Thursday, February 10, 2011

Don’t Say a Word by Barbara Gehrts, translated by Elizabeth D, Crawford

When I was young and naïve, I used to think that if people were German during the Third Reich then they must also be Nazis. This, I later learned, was not actually true.   Even though most people did support the regime, there were some who did not. But we will never really know how many silent dissenters there were, because they had to keep their mouths shut, which explains the title of Barbara Gehrts book. If they didn’t, they could meet the same fate a people like Sophie Scholl – a mock trial and a death sentence.
Don’t Say a Word, a translation of Nie wieder ein Wort davon, is the story of the Singlemann family living in a middle class suburb of Berlin. It is narrated by 13 year old daughter Anna Singlemann. Anna’s father, Franz, is an high ranking officer in the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (German Air Ministry); her older brother Hannes is in the Hitler Youth and will soon be in the Hitler Youth Flying Corps; Anna is in the League of German Girls and Mrs. Singlemann is a stay at home mom. To the outside world, they look like the perfect Nazi family, as do their close relatives, the Rolands: Uncle Oskar, Aunt Lore and their children Erik, Wolfgang, Ursula and Lisabeth. Yet, neither family supports the Nazi government.

The story begins in 1940. The English have just begun bombing Berlin and rationing is beginning to really be felt. To deal with the food shortages, the Singlemann’s and the Roland’s share a large plot of land, where they plant potatoes and do the work themselves. To deal with the bombs, they build bomb shelters in their homes. In the beginning of the book, Anna spends a great deal of time describing their everyday life, including the effect some of the new laws against Jews are having on her friends and neighbors. For example, one elderly couple tells Anna that they found their little terrier dead in his basket; but Anna thinks they got rid of the dog when Jews were forbidden to own pets. Later, just before Christmas, Anna learns that her best friend, Ruth, who was half-Jewish, had committed suicide along with the rest of her family because the situation for Jews had become so much worse..

Soon, the war also begins to intrude on their lives. First, Erik Roland is drafted and sent to fight at the eastern front in Russia. Not long after, news of his death arrives. But the biggest and most distressing surprise for Anna and Hannes comes when their father is arrested by the Gestapo. Anna description of the Gestapo’s search of their house is chilling. To explain his absence, they are ordered to tell people that their father is away on a business trip for an unspecified amount of time, even though everyone knows that is a euphemism for “arrested.” And while the details of why Herr Singlemann is arrested are not clear, the impression the reader is given is that her father, using his high position in the air ministry, is involved in some kind of underground or anti-government activity.

As events unfold, Singlemann’s arrest, imprisonment and trial begin take on a very Kafkaque quality. At every turn, the family is reminded that their lives are controlled by the government and they are never given reasons for decisions. Frau Singlemann is only allowed to visit her husband occasionally, but must show up everyday and ask for permission after waiting hours to speak to an official. Eventually they receive notice that their father has been executed and disposed of. Traitors were not permitted to be buried by their family under the Nazis They do, however, receive a bill for the cost of Herr Singlemann’s imprisonment, trial and execution, a common practice of the Nazis for those arrested for crimes against the state.

Shortly after his father’s execution, Hannes is sent to a work camp, where, because of his father, he is treated quite harshly despite being a hard worker. Even after he becomes seriously ill, he is treated with distain or simply ignored until things go too far. Back home, Anna and her mother find it increasing difficult to get by. The bombing of Berlin is getting more intense and coming closer to the area where they live. Eventually, the house is hit, rendering it unlivable.

When the book ends, rather abruptly, the reader is given some sense of closure in terms of the other characters, but not Anna, other than that she survives. The author, Barbara Gehrts, has included an Afterword explaining that she and her mother survived, but that is all. It was a very unsatisfying end to an otherwise interesting book. It is a novel that is based on the author’s real experiences during the war, including the part about her father.

Don’t Say a Word was originally written in German and translated into English, so something may have been lost in translation, as often happens. In the German edition, Anna is called Hanna and Singlemann is spelled Singelmann. Small points, but I always wonder why it is done. Despite the ending, it is worth one’s while to read this book, if only for the realistic portrayal of the way the Gestapo felt so entitled to treated people whose loyalty is suspect.

This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was borrowed from the Hunter College Library Juvenile Literature collection.

This is book 2 of my YA of the 80s and 90s Challenge hosted by The Book Vixen
This is book 4 of my YA Historical Fiction Challange hosted by YA Bliss


  1. This sounds interesting, though grim. The German title actually means something more like, Never Heard From Again, so you're probably right to guess that some of the original meaning may have been lost in the translation.

  2. Grim, indeed! But I will be reading it. Am writing a German story now, so these first hand accounts, though difficult, are enlightening in the worst sort of way.

    Have you read German Boy? It's an adult memoir about a child and family trying to stay ahead of the Russian Army at the end of WWII. I'm in the middle of it now. Tragic but one reviewer at Amazon said, "This book broke my heart and healed it all over again in a single read."

    I am eager for the healing part!

  3. Yes, Rachel, I think the translation leaves much to be desired and I would like to read this book in German, if I can find it.

    I haven't read German Boy, Joyce, but have read much about Germans fleeing from the Russians, much the way Barbara Gehrts and her mother had to. Just when you think the accounts can't get any grimer, they do, but I would say the same thing about the Holocaust.

  4. This sounds like a novel that I'd be interested in reading -- I had never really thought about the German (non-Nazi) perspective until I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and now I'm very interested in finding other novels that present this perspective. Thanks for reviewing!

  5. I read this book when I was a kid, and really enjoyed it. Some of the experiences she described still haunt me today.

  6. What a fantastic book. I was completely caught up in the story from the first page. I had to know Julia's story! Nice mix of romance and suspense. I highly recommend it!