What Would Any of Us Do?
City of Women is a novel about ordinary people making extraordinary decisions in dangerous times. It’s about small decisions leading to bigger decisions, and it asks: at what point does one arrive at a moral commitment? I explore this question in a historical setting: Berlin in 1943 at the height of the Second World War. All the men are away at the front and Berlin has become a city of women. But life, for the population of women left behind, is a dull and gritty thing. This is true for my protagonist, Sigrid, a war wife trapped in a numbingly tedious existence, until one afternoon, she helps a young woman evade an arrogant police official, simply because she doesn’t like bullies. A few months later she is being chased by the Gestapo through a train station, with the lives of four other people in her hands. How did she get there?
I have always been captivated by history. Not just its broad sweep, but also its intimate corners, where the shadows gather. And Berlin, during the Second World War, was a city defined by its shadows. In 1943, the Nazis were trying to distract the population from the bitter truth that Germany was losing the war. One of the ways they did this was by intensifying the anti-Semitic campaigns. The Gestapo swept through Berlin’s factories, deporting Jewish workers and their families en masse: men, women, children, the elderly, the infirm, it made no difference. They all went.
But what about the average citizen? Those people who were not on the Gestapo’s list for arrest and deportation? Those people who claimed that they were simply trying to feed their kids, to keep a roof over their heads, and to stay out of trouble? How did these people respond to barbarities being committed in their name by the regime? I created the character of Sigrid because I wanted to write about a woman who seems to have capitulated to the slavish routine that defines her daily life. In th novel, her present has become so hopelessly monotonous that she has given up on her own future as well. But when circumstances change, so does she. In fact, when a young woman, whom she barely knows, seizes her arm in a cinema as the Gestapo arrive, and begs Sigrid to, Please say I came in here with you, Sigrid is already primed to break free from her passivity by a passionate nature she has been taught since childhood to keep in check. Soon she is making one dangerous choice after the next, driven by . . . by what? Desire? Excitement? Conscience? All of these?
Certainly, she has watched as the casual anti-Semitism of German society was transformed into state-sponsored persecution, and state-supported pogroms. She witnessed the Night of Broken Glass in Berlin, and its aftermath, where thousands of Jews were arrested, beaten, and murdered. For years she may have disapproved, she may have felt shame for her nation, but she did not resist, even as Jewish Berliners were marched through the streets on their way to “resettlement” in the East. Did she feel helpless to act? Most probably. (What, after all, could one woman do?) Did she feel relieved by the fact of her helplessness? Very likely. If she could not act, then she did not need to feel a responsibility to act. So when she finally breaks free of this self-imposed trap, how much of Sigrid’s transformation is due to moral choice, and how much of it is due simply to her sudden need to recognize her true self?
Of course, the overarching question—the question I continually asked myself as I was writing City of Women—was: What would you do?
It’s easy to watch people making choices with life-or-death consequences from a comfortable distance. Characters in a book make their decisions and roll the dice. They succeed or fail, they live or die. But the question is: If you were Sigrid, and a young woman seized you by the arm as you sat in a cinema, and begged, Please say I came in here with you , what would you do? What would any of us do?