War, Spies and Bobby Sox: Stories about World War II at Home
WAR, SPIES AND BOBBY SOX brings together Libby Fischer Hellman’s three previously published stories about World War II’s effects on the American homeland. These two novellas and a short story fictionalize what could have happened in the heartland during the war years.
“The Incidental Spy” is the story of Lena Bentheim, a young Jewish woman whose family lives in Berlin. She is in love with Josef Meyer, a fellow student and Jew. Both their families plan to emigrate to Hungary, but Lena feels she will be unsafe there. Instead, she decides to leave for America, specifically Chicago, in several weeks. Her father has lost his job, and the city is in turmoil.
Now living with her aunt Ursula, Lena studies typing, stenography, English language and office skills. When she gets a job, she can pay the relatives back for her expenses. She receives letters from home, but they become fewer with time. Josef writes, telling her that her family has not gone to Budapest with the others. Soon, however, the correspondence stops altogether. Ursula’s husband eventually secures Lena a secretarial position in the Physics department of the university where he works.
One day, Lena is surprised by Karl Stern, a faculty member who has been working on a project to split the atom. Both Germans, they fall into an easy relationship, become a twosome and eventually marry. Karl tries to explain the business of bombarding elements with neutrons and the effect to produce a nuclear reaction, possibly a bomb. His department is aware that Germany is working on the same research.
"Libby Fischer Hellman powerfully illustrates what individuals could have faced while living in such perilous times. This is an engaging read with much food for thought."
By December, Lena announces she is pregnant. When Max is 18 months old, she is giddy with possibilities for a holiday celebration. However, she mentions several times to Karl that she felt like a man was following her while she was out on errands. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States enters the war. A week later, at 3:00am, two officers ring the Sterns’ doorbell. Karl has been struck and killed by an out-of-control automobile while walking home. Lena’s world is turned upside down.
The story climaxes when Max is kidnapped and ransomed, but returned to his mother for favors. Lena has become a spy for the Germans in order to protect her son. She is manipulated and feels lost. Help comes, but is it too late for her? Read on.
“POW” involves German prisoners of war being activated to work in American communities while family breadwinners serve the United States overseas. One group is taken daily from their prison camp to work on an Illinois farm for a woman and her children. Each character’s viewpoint is written from the first-person account. Wilhelm is a lean young man, dehydrated but gaining strength and observant of the woman’s daughter, beautiful 18-year-old Mary Catherine. She, on the other hand, is enamored of the robust and handsome, though wily, Reinhard. The prisoners do the farm chores without complaint, except for Reinhard. He manipulates circumstances to get out of duties, managing to lure Mary Catherine into a spot in one of the outbuildings, feigning vertigo.
When her mother goes to town on an errand, leaving her in charge, Mary Catherine’s younger brother has an accident while she flirts with Reinhard. Reinhard is cruel, calculating and a friend to no one, a stoic follower of the Third Reich. Escape will be his sole motive. Who will pay the consequences for sexual interplay, a boy’s tragedy and a possible murder? “POW” is a page-turner with a demand for a righteous finale.
“The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared” is set in Chicago where two Jewish teens, Jake Foreman and Barney Teitleman, meet. Together they moon over a gorgeous new girl who has come to town, the Jewish actress Miriam Hirsch. A slightly older Jewish gangster type nicknamed “Skull” draws the lady’s attention, and he waits for her at the same coffee shop that the boys frequent. They become a regular couple, unaware that two teens follow their every public move.
Ultimately, Miriam and Skull end their courtship. Skull approaches Jake and Barney about running errands for him for payment. Now, Miriam entertains a new man in her room, a blond whiskered guy who comes and goes with regularity. The boys’ parents have a way of finding out what they’re doing and end their employment. Miriam’s mutilated body is found in an alley. Not long after, her blond friend is also killed, and it seems he had membership in a Nazi organization. Why did Miriam disappear? Who is responsible for these murders? Jake and Barney think they have the answers.
WAR, SPIES AND BOBBY SOX gives readers an important history lesson about Middle America during the WWII years. Libby Fischer Hellman powerfully illustrates what individuals could have faced while living in such perilous times. This is an engaging read with much food for thought.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on March 17, 2017