The Kommandant’s Mistress by Sherri Szeman:
(Summary taken from Good Reads)
This powerful, disturbing, yet utterly compelling first novel tells the story of a Nazi Kommandant and his Jewish prisoner/lover by weaving together three points of view: his, hers, and a supposedly objective view presented through official documents.
Now, that’s not much of a summary, I know, but I think it’s fairly accurate, and really all you need to know to decide whether this book is for you or not if you’re not the type to read reviews.
The first thing I want to say is that this was not an easy book to read. I devoured it, but the subject matter and the style the author chose to use both made it difficult. Because I am a writer, I’m going to start with the style and then move onto the subject matter.
I’m not sure how big of a spoiler it is to explain what was so unique about the writing style, so consider this a WARNING: potential spoilers abound. Having said that: this book is not told linearly AT ALL. There is no warning for when you jump backwards and forwards in time other than that it will not be either mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. But there are no spaces to indicate a new scene with the exception of chapter breaks, and the chapters do not lead into each other. It’s very stream-of-conscience where the closing line of one time-line/memory/scene will trigger the opening line of the next, but the scenes don’t always feel ‘complete’ when they jump to the next one. Sometimes you’ll jump back to a previous scene and sometimes you won’t.
Further, because you first get the Nazi Kommandant’s perspective and you then get the Jewish mistress’s perspective, the story feels a little Rashomon-esque, where you see two very different takes on the same events. Who you sympathize with is up to you, of course, but because we get his view first and hers second, and because he emphasizes truth so very much, I found myself believing her story more.
I want to state something very clearly before I go farther: I am Jewish. This might bias me, yes, but the relevant part of that is that there is no time I can look back to and say “Here is when I learned about the Holocaust, before this time I did not know about what happened.” So there was not a lot in this book that surprised me or that I did not know in general terms, because by this point in my life I have heard and read so many stories, including about the Jewish women taken as ‘lovers’ by high-ranking Nazis.
Now, onto the subject matter. This is not a love story or a romance, and for that I am very happy. The nuances of the relationship between von Walther and Rachel are deeply complex and I thought that, for Rachel’s story, it was very believable that von Walther would still be a huge shadow over her life after liberation to the point that her husband would remark on von Walther’s lingering influence.
Both of them were amazingly complex characters, although I only appreciated the full depth of them both when I read Rachel’s perspective (Part II). Seeing the events he described through her eyes confirmed some of my suspicions and filled in the blanks in ways I hadn’t expected.
I would love to recommend this book to as many people as can get their hands on it, but it does deal with disturbing subject matter. The relationship dynamic between the two main characters is, of course, a huge part of that, but so are the atrocities described throughout the entire book. Still, if you are all right with the subject matter, I don’t think I can recommend this novel highly enough.
To close, I have several points to make.
Firstly, this is still historical FICTION. The characters and events are based on historical FACT, but quite a few things were changed or made up whole. Let me state that those things made up whole were people’s names and interactions between people. None of the atrocities were made up even if they happened to fictional people. This entire story COULD HAVE happened. It didn’t, as the known historical facts of both von Walther’s and Rachel’s lives attribute.
Secondly, while the subject matter is disturbing and Szeman does not shy away from graphic imagery, she handles it with the utmost respect. I’m not sure how better to explain it then that and to say: SZEMAN DID HER RESEARCH.
Finally, do not read Part III (which looks a bit like an appendix) until after you’ve read the first two parts. Because it looked like an appendix, I made the mistake of reading it earlier on than I should have, and I think I would have been much happier saving it for last.
On a completely unrelated note, this story fulfills my 1940-1959 time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.