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Shadows of Berlin


Shadows of Berlin

Though many years have gone by, and she is more than an ocean away from Germany, Rachel Perlman continues to be haunted by the events of the Holocaust. Her survival as a Jewish teenager in Berlin during the war was achieved by atypical but not unheard-of means. Now, married and living in New York, she is wracked with guilt and traumatized by what she witnessed and experienced. Her well-meaning husband does his best, but when a long-lost painting shows up in a local pawn shop, Rachel’s world begins to unravel again. SHADOWS OF BERLIN, David R. Gillham’s latest novel, is Rachel’s tale.

In 1955, New York has absorbed some Jewish refugees from the war. But most of the Jews Rachel meets, including the Perlman family she married into, are relatively safe in the US during the genocide that took her family and community from her. Rachel Morgenstern’s mother, Lavinia Morgenstern-Landau, is a successful artist and an eccentric, larger-than-life character. She raises Rachel to cleave to her Jewishness, and yet they are (at least in public) acculturated into German society. Rachel never knew her father, but she is close to her mother’s brother, Fritz, also a figure on the art scene. She, too, is a talented artist.

"Gillham tackles challenging subject matter and treats it with dignity, giving his characters nuance and depth."

Though she always feels cowed by her mother’s talent and bold paintings, Rachel is encouraged by Lavinia to paint. After the war begins, and as the deportations of Jews to death camps become known, the Morgenstern trio make the decision to hide in Berlin. Both pass as Germans and seek hiding places when they can. It is a terrifying, hungry and humiliating time. However, things take a turn for the strange when someone from their past shows up with the power to both save and punish them.

In New York, Rachel is shocked when her uncle, who also survived, tells her that her mother’s most famous and enigmatic painting has surfaced. The emotions that Rachel barely has been managing threaten to overwhelm her. The ghost of her mother comes into sharper relief, and her tense relationship with Fritz grows even more tense. And day by day, Rachel feels a distance grow between her and her husband, Aaron. Aaron longs for children and wants Rachel to be happy. He doesn’t understand what she went through and is continuing to feel, and he often says the wrong thing altogether. Still, he remains a safe and solid presence for Rachel as she wrestles with her past and looks toward the possibilities in her future.

Gillham tackles challenging subject matter and treats it with dignity, giving his characters nuance and depth. He successfully portrays Rachel’s interior life as she responds to her memories, experiences and current circumstances. He is at pains here to paint an accurate picture of the lives his characters might have lived, though sometimes, especially when it comes to the use of language, he overreaches a bit.

Fiction about the Holocaust needs to tread very carefully, especially when it’s written by authors who have an outsider's interest or perspective. Gillham almost lets his characters become caricatures a few times but catches himself. There is some melodrama here, along with a couple of almost too-extraordinary turns in the plot. Overall, though, SHADOWS OF BERLIN is a rich and compelling exploration of survival, guilt, family, artistic expression and healing.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 8, 2022

Shadows of Berlin
by David R. Gillham

  • Publication Date: January 24, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • ISBN-10: 1728260116
  • ISBN-13: 9781728260112