Grand Central Pub
Jan 24th, 2023
The Secretary by Catherine Hokin is a gripping novel spanning four decades. It has a dual timeline covering Germany during WWII and East Berlin after the war. Throughout the book readers will wonder would they be brave like the two heroines or remain a neutral bystander? Did the heroines take enough action, or should they have done more?
“I come from a tiny village in England. When I was seventeen, I went there and saw the wall, in about 1979. I never have seen people with machine guns. I spoke with a local woman who told me that her sister lived in East Berlin, and she has not seen her in over twenty years. The wall went up overnight and if someone was caught on the other side that was it. My mind fast-forwarded to this story. There are a lot of flash points for me which I write about in my books.”
Magda Aderbach became the personal assistant to factory owner Walther Tiedemann, reminding readers of Oskar Schindler who saved Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. Because of her efficiency Magda impresses Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS and architect of the Holocaust, and she volunteers to be his secretary. She leads a dual life, pretending to enjoy hob-knobbing with the powerful Nazis, but also working for the resistance because she hates the Nazis and what they stand for. She smuggles reports, forges documents, arranges fake IDs to smuggle Jews out of Germany, and has organized safe houses for the Jews as well.
“I wrote Magda as reliable, steady, impulsive, loyal, brave, and chose to fight injustice. But I do not think she realizes the scale of what was the cost of her involvement. She has a naïve view that she can stand up to the Nazis who she worked with. Magda questions if she did enough? She did arrange escape routes and wrote reports, forging IDs, and had safe houses.”
Fast forward forty years where Magda now lives in East Berlin, behind the Berlin Wall with her daughter, her husband, and her granddaughter, Nina Dahlke. Both Magda and Nina have similar personality traits, wanting to fight injustice, although the granddaughter is more impulsive and a lot less cautious. Beyond that, Nina does not understand why her grandmother is so secretive about her life in Germany during WWII. She knows there is a house in question, that was once lived in by Magda, but there are secrets involved with that house, and more secrets that Magda has kept to herself. After the Wall falls, Nina takes a journey to West Berlin to find the Tower House, hoping to trace her family’s history in the ruins of the past her grandmother ran from. But, when she finally finds the abandoned house, she finds out who owned the house, and wonders if her grandmother had a dual life, seeing pictures of her with Himmler. To make matters worse, Nina meets Elsa, the former wife of an SS officer, who lies and tries to pin her atrocities on Magda.
“Elsa is horrible, hard, vicious, dangerous, and cruel, an adversary of Magda. I wrote her to show how someone during those times was immersed in the Nazi life. She loved the lifestyle. Elsa was caught up in the cause and jealous of Magda. Elsa liked being in control of the chess board, pulling people’s strings.”
What the author does brilliantly is show parallels and similarities between the Nazi regime and the Communists control of East Berlin, the Stasis. As with both regimes there were spies everywhere, no freedom, a life lived under guards and rifles, terrible atrocities, and inhuman behavior where there was oppression, imprisonment, and killings. Readers understand the heroism of Magda and Nina as they were brave enough to stand up to tyranny even if it meant a harsh imprisonment or execution. Once the wall falls, the two worlds of Nina and Magda collide in a major revelation.
This novel is riveting throughout. Readers will not be able to put the book down, wanting to find out how the stories end for both Nina and Magda. The portrayals of these characters who must make impossible choices will keep people on the edge of their seats. A bonus is the history sprinkled throughout the novel.