Here’s another old review from my archives, this time of a thought-provoking crime novel, Das Kindermädchen by Elisabeth Herrmann, published by Rotbuch Verlag in 2005.
It sets out to raise awareness of a little-known aspect of the Second World War – the abduction of girls from Eastern Europe for use as forced labourers in private households, as nannies, housemaids and so on. Herrmann succeeds admirably in combining this serious political subject with a well-constructed plot to produce a gripping and witty thriller, without becoming preachy. It is based on her research as a journalist and her interviews with survivors of this period in Ukraine.
The lawyer Joachim Vernau seems to have made it in life: he is about to marry the Berlin Senator Sigrun Zernikow, be made a partner in her father’s old-established law firm, and set up his office in an up-market area. Only his friend Marie-Luise, also a lawyer but on the left-wing and working in less well off districts, reminds him of his radical student days. However an old Ukrainian woman turns up at the offices one day demanding that Sigrun’s father Utz von Zernikow sign a piece of paper. As nobody can read the Cyrillic script, they send her away again. But when her body is found in a canal, Joachim’s life turns upside down at a stroke. He and Marie-Luise start investigating and discover that Natalia Cherednichenkova was Utz’s nanny during the Second World War, and now her daughter Milla is demanding compensation for forced labour for her mother, who can no longer travel. As Natalia has no proof, she needs confirmation from the Zernikows that she worked for them, but they are reluctant to admit it. When Vernau finds himself threatened, assaulted and shot at, he knows that there’s more to this than a skeleton in the Zernikow family cupboard. Perhaps the young Natalia saw more than she should have done during the air raids and, sixty years on, somebody is still prepared to kill to protect their secrets. Joachim soon finds that he must chose between loyalty to his future in-laws and finding out the truth.
The characters are well developed and, although there are recognisable types, they never descend into caricature. There is Sigrun, the rather cold, ambitious and career-dominated politician; Utz, her father who is confused and guilty about his role in past events but too conservative to admit to them; Joachim trying to do the right thing but with conflicting loyalties and surrounded by dominant women; Marie-Luise, the radical left-wing lawyer, fighting for minorities and seeing oppression everywhere; Milla who is furious about what was done to her mother and will stop at nothing to get justice. The author recognises human weakness and the desire to hide past mistakes, whether in Joachim’s relationship with his mother, or the Zernikow family’s Nazi past. Herrmann has a light tone and precise and humorous style, and strikes a fine balance between informing and entertaining the reader. The pace starts relatively slowly as we are introduced to the characters and their lives and then builds rapidly in the second half of the novel as events intensify towards the dramatic conclusion.
This book is thoroughly enjoyable and well worth reading, both for the crime story and the political and historical insights it provides.