Book Review: ‘Miss Graham’s War’ by Celia Rees

Today I share my review of ‘Miss Graham’s War‘, the latest novel by Celia Rees, which has been released in a new edition, having spent some time on sale as ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’.

Book Cover Miss Graham’s War, a novel by Celia Rees

Miss Graham’s War‘ is a very complex and gripping account of life in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory over Germany in 1945. The main protagonist Edith Graham, a lover of recipes and cooking, goes out from England to take part in what is known as the Control Commission, in the British Zone, to try and help the education system in Germany recover. However she is also asked to act as a spy seeking out wanted Nazis in hiding. I learned a huge amount about this period, of which I had previously known very little. It opened my eyes to how the ordinary people of Germany suffered in the first few years after the War, both those who still sympathised with Nazism, and those who had not agreed with Hitler’s ideology, but who had kept quiet to save their lives.

The structure of the book, interspersed with recipes from the time, was fascinating. The recipes and ingredients were very revealing; some horrifying, as they revealed the desperately low rations for people in Germany at that time.

 For instance, one recipe was for Moltkestrasse Tea: pine needles chopped fine, and boiling water.  Used to ward off hunger by those who have nothing else.

Another minimal recipe for the near-starving, deprived of rations, involved finely-cut-up human hair, to provide some element of minerals and vitamins.

A third example is Prison Camp Soup – fish bones and skin; water; and buckwheat, or whatever else you can get.  Note: we have no equivalent, unless you count the Irish a hundred years ago reduced to eating grasses in the Famine.

Other recipes evoked another world entirely: I loved the German cake recipes, especially one for Bee Sting Cake, which is essentially sweet dough, baked, topped with honey, butter, sugar and almonds, and filled with a custard cream.  In wartime circumstances, with rations low, but with the ingredients cunningly sourced from somewhere and hoarded out of sight, a slice of that would have been pure heaven.  Such cakes of course belong to the famous ritual Kaffee und Kuchen.  Another recipe, for asparagus flan, sounded gorgeous; some of the recipes I thought I really must try out myself (but not the ones with human hair, fish bones and pine needles).

The book gives many harrowing details of war crimes committed by the Nazis. It is packed with characters who have different motivations, which can be confusing to the reader, but ultimately we are carried along with the decency and goodness of Edith’s character, and the passion of Harry, whom she loves, and who will later go to Israel and become a member of Mossad. Fate intervenes, along with tragedy. Depending on your point of view it may be said that Edith’s quest ultimately results in poetic justice, or not. Here on earth, we have no final answer to the mystery of human wickedness, or a perfect resolution to the quest for justice. But this story is very compelling and there are many chequered characters to arouse our emotions.

It is the kind of story which may haunt you for some time afterwards, as you wonder about war, and about the aftermath of war, and the disastrous decisions that are made in such times, that attempt to correct injustices but only sew new tragedy and pain for the future, even after the actual fighting has ended.

A highly recommended book for those who can’t get enough of historical fiction and books about the history of the 20th century.

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Book Review: Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

This is the story of how three young women – Anka, Rachel and Priska – hid their pregnancies from Dr Josef Mengele on the ramp at Auschwitz, and went on to suffer in the concentration camps and give birth to their babies just before Liberation in April 1945. All three of those babies then met for the first time at the age of 65 and became very close because of the astonishing similarity of circumstances in which they had been born.

Born Survivors by Wendy Holden
Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

I’ve read several books about and by Holocaust survivors, and yet each time I read the detailed account of an individual’s experiences I feel the horror afresh. This account, brilliantly told by Wendy Holden, spares none of the terrible details; the one thing that keeps you going, as the reader, through the grotesque inhumanity of the Nazis, is the knowledge that “this story is only being told because the three women and their babies survived.”

As survivor Esther Bauer put it: “The first twenty years we couldn’t talk about it. For the next twenty years no-one wanted to hear about it. Only in the next twenty years did people start asking questions.”

When reading these books I have two immediate responses. One is to try to imagine how I would have coped with those kind of circumstances, and how I would have behaved. The second response is always to ask what this tells us about the nature of human beings,  of good and evil, hope and despair.

This time, I had the following thought:

The essential requirement for “hope” seems to be “macro” thinking. For many of us, when life’s “normal” we live our little lives with our small goals. But when Force Majeure intervenes, throwing us into a survival situation – be that earthquake, tsunami, terrorist atrocity, or Nazi Holocaust – our goals shift from “micro” thinking to “macro” thinking, at the point where lives and hopes and dreams are torn apart – a shift takes place. A new goal replaces the old: to survive; or to know that your story might be known in the future. And these three women would have hoped that their as yet unborn babies would be the living embodiment of that.