Eva's Cousin

Eva's Cousin

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by Sibylle Knauss

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Berchtesgaden, Germany, is a beautiful place, set among the gentle meadow-clad hills rising to the sheer heights of bare Alpine peaks. It is here where an elderly woman arrives and recollects her past—and her peripheral role in a chapter of world history. She walks along a beaten path, which has come into being because so many tourists have ventured this way

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Berchtesgaden, Germany, is a beautiful place, set among the gentle meadow-clad hills rising to the sheer heights of bare Alpine peaks. It is here where an elderly woman arrives and recollects her past—and her peripheral role in a chapter of world history. She walks along a beaten path, which has come into being because so many tourists have ventured this way . . . to see something that exists only in her memory.

In the summer of 1944, twenty-year-old Marlene is thrilled when her older, more glamorous cousin, Eva Braun, Adolph Hitler’s mistress, invites her to come to the Fuhrer’s Bavarian mountain retreat. Against her father’s wishes, Marlene accepts, and immediately sets forth to Berghof.

There, while Hitler is away desperately trying to turn the tides of war, Marlene finds herself in a strange paradise, a world of opulence and imminent danger, of freedom and surveillance. The two women sneak off and skinny-dip in a nearby-lake, watch films in the Fuhrer’s private cinema, and flirt with the SS officers at the dinner table—one of whom will become Marlene’s first lover.

Initially delighted by Eva’s attentions, Marlene later tries to understand the elusive connection between her cousin and the man she loves.

In quiet defiance, she begins to commit her own acts of subversion, which include listening to BBC radio broadcasts, forbidden by the Fuhrer. But a clandestine mission of mercy will force her to question her allegiance to both her cousin and her country—and to face the chilling reality that exists outside her sheltered world.

Based on the true experiences of Eva Braun’s cousin, Gertrude Weisker, who has shared her memories with Sibylle Knauss after more than fifty years of silence, Eva’s Cousin is a novel that illuminates the banality of the domestic face of evil. It casts a special light on the profound questions of innocence and complicity that still haunt much of the world today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An intimate portrait of two women at the center of history and how innocence itself can be a crime against humanity. My book of the year.”
Orange Prize-winning author of When I Lived in Modern Times

Publishers Weekly
In the sweltering summer of 1944, Germany's citizens were trapped between the Allied bombing raids and the fear-driven virulence of Hitler's faltering government. But for 20-year-old Marlene, invited by her cousin, Eva Braun, to stay at Hitler's mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, the summer was one of sexual and social awakening. Marlene is initially blinded by the unaccustomed luxury, but she turns out to be both sensible and sensitive. While she has an affair with an SS officer, she also hides a young Russian boy who has escaped the work camps. Based on interviews with Braun's real cousin, the novel is a sympathetic portrait of an innocent girl who, while she seems ensconced in the heart of the Nazi empire, is actually a resistance force of one. An older, disenchanted Marlene looks back on these events and says that the entire country was steeped in guilt and shame: "We remember gray-faced people whom we saw passing by, and we remember that we saw them in the knowledge that they were lost." When Knauss implies that Marlene's experience can explain mass support for the Nazi regime, the moral center of the book falters, but her sparely poetic and intense portrait of a young girl caught between her own ethical code and the promise of power is unrelentingly powerful. A bestseller in Germany, the narrative is adeptly translated by prize-winning Anthea Bell, who has also rendered W.G. Sebald's works into English; it may well make Knauss's international reputation. Readers must judge for themselves whether the protagonist's description of her family as outspoken anti-Nazis is revisionist history, but her memories of Hitler and his entourage are bound to excite interest. (Sept.) FYI: Prohibited by her husband to speak about her past, the real-life protagonist of this novel, Gertraud Weisker, waited until after his death to tell her story to veteran German novelist Knauss. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Gertrude Weisker promised her husband never to speak of the time she spent as Eva Braun's companion in 1944. After he died, Gertrude revealed her story. Knauss, a German novelist and academic, has transformed the banal facts of a light friendship between two cousins into a novel "for readers who know and respect the mystery of fiction." The mystery may arise from separating out what Weisker really thought and felt in those days long ago from what Knauss might have added to make this a compelling wartime novel. Not all readers will be convinced that the Gertrude character, Marlene, hid a fugitive Ukrainian in her private dwelling at the Bavarian villa where Eva awaited Hitler's phone calls from the front. However, few will doubt that over the intervening 57 years the real Gertrude burnished her experiences and with Knauss as her voice (and in Bell's inspired translation) produced a work of painful honesty and chilling revulsion. Passing through the sieve of conscience, Weisker's camouflaged recollections reveal that these girls in their summer dresses were part of the German juggernaut of destruction. First published in Germany, this intimate narrative will garner a great deal of attention in the States as well. For most historical fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/02.]-Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In the stifling summer of 1944, Marlene, 20, is invited by her older and more worldly cousin to join her at a mountain retreat. The cousin is Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler's mistress, and the retreat is the Berghof, his villa in the Bavarian Alps. At first, she is awestruck by the luxury and pristine setting of her surroundings. As she tries to understand Eva, who changes her clothes several times a day and thinks nothing of having baskets of shoes, she becomes disillusioned, seeing her as shallow, self-absorbed, and detached from reality. Marlene battles boredom, studies physics, and commits two acts of defiance that open her eyes to chilling events taking place not far from their idyllic refuge. As she listens to the BBC and saves a young Ukrainian boy who has run away from a work camp, she realizes that her sheltered world on the mountain is an illusion. This novel is based on the memories of Gertrude Weisker, Braun's cousin, as told to the author. Though Weisker is fictionalized as Marlene, the Nazis are referred to by their real names. Knauss raises important and compelling questions about complicity. Even though the writing occasionally jumps back and forth in time, the story is engaging and helps make this period of history accessible to readers. YAs will find Marlene's tale intriguing as it unfolds against the backdrop of sinister events.-Susanne Bardelson, Arvada Public Library, CO Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Talk about 15 minutes of celebrity: here's a novel based on German dramaturgy professor Knauss's interviews with Gertrude Weisker, who spent the last several months of WWII with her cousin Eva Braun at Hitler's mountain retreat. Readers of the account will of course try to distinguish the made-up from what really happened to "Marlene." At 20, she goes to stay with her lonely cousin Eva while Hitler is away pursuing the war. Though Marlene never actually meets the Führer, she does meet his henchmen Goring, Speer (who shows a brief but polite interest in the physics textbook Marlene is studying), et al. For over half the book, the young woman merely describes her life: the daily routine, her family, the way Hitler's household was run. We learn that Marlene's father was anti-Hitler, that Eva's sister was married off to an SS higher-up, that Eva was totally devoted to her lover and oblivious of politics, accepting her status as mistress even though she yearned to be a wife, that Marlene listened secretly to radio reports from London, and-now-that she has carried into her old age a heavy, if largely secret, guilt about those months. The information is interesting (and avoids any taint of the self-serving), but it doesn't coalesce into a real plot until the arrival of Mikhail. Having escaped from a work camp nearby, the 16-year-old happens into the teahouse, separate from the main building, where Marlene has been staying alone. The danger in Marlene's decision to harbor a foreign escapee on Hitler's turf is obvious to the point of melodrama (she takes an SS lover to maintain a cover). But the tale does spring briefly to a fictional life with the retelling of Mikhail's imprisonment and escape,his survival instinct and emotional energy making a strong contrast with Marlene's depressed if pretentious musings. An earnest if also lethargic footnote to a footnote of history. (This is the first of Knauss's five novels to be translated into English.)

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.46(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.74(d)

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chapter 1

the trains were still running in the sum- mer of 1944. I even had a reservation, which proved to some degree superfluous, since the closer the train came to Munich the emptier it was. Not many people wanted to go into the cities at that time. They wanted to get out. As far away from the bombs as possible.

But I wanted to go in. I knew very well that I was going to survive; at the age of twenty everyone is sure of surviving. It was a great promise, a promise made to me, a most-favored-person clause in the contract of life. Something told me that of any two possibilities, the better must always be intended for me. Sometimes I was quite surprised to have come into the world a girl, as if in that other world before birth there had been a version of myself who failed to pay attention just for a moment, and now had to get by as best she could with being born a woman.

In fact, being born a woman was a considerably healthier prospect at the time. Of the twenty-two boys in my class who had taken the school-leaving exam with me a year ago, ten were already dead, and the litany of their names, a monotonous chant now running in time to the rhythm of the train passing over the sleepers, came into my mind of its own accord and almost unremittingly: Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-Günther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . .

I suppose they, too, had firmly believed themselves fundamentally invulnerable. Or would they have marched when the order came to march, would they have run when they were told to run—into the gunfire, into ambushes, into minefields? Wouldn't they have dug themselves in like foxes, coming out again only when it was all over? Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-Günther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . . Not one of them would have known the knack of dying.

When the first bad news began to arrive, pages of death notices in the Jena newspaper inserted by parents describing their pain as "grief and pride," only occasionally revealing the unutterable depths of misery that had afflicted them—"Our dear big boy," they might say, or "Our only child, loved above all else," and then a name that brought back to me all the remembered atmosphere of summer afternoons on the bathing beach or at dancing class—when such news came I had walked aimlessly through the woods for hours on end. The wind ruffled my hair, night came on. I wanted to be close to them, to feel what it's like to be out of doors, without shelter, and with no chance of going home. I began to hear their voices whispering, as if they were in the middle of some old, familiar scouting game to be played only by the dead and those destined to die. I tried to imagine the moment when you assent to your fate. It must come only just before death, I thought. I intended to spend a night in the wood, freezing cold as my friends had been. But then I went home to bed after all.

Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-Günther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . . The staccato rattle of the train going over the railway sleepers was a hollow, ominous accompaniment to that chant. A distant, unreal corps of drummers. It seemed to grow louder as the journey went on, as if something unavoidable were approaching. It had accompanied them, too, on their way east.

Ernst-Günther was my boyfriend. When the news that he had fallen came I locked myself in my room to cry. But all I really felt was enormous anger to think that he had died before we ever really did it. I think most of those boys hadn't done it yet. Max might have. Maybe Rudolf. Just possibly Waldemar. Ernst-Günther? If he'd ever done it, it would certainly have been with me. It simply wasn't fair to let them die before they really knew what it was like.

I was sorry now that we hadn't been engaged. If we'd been engaged I might have done it. I probably would have done it. I blamed myself for not being more in love with him. Now that he was dead it wouldn't have matter if I'd pledged mad, undying love for him. We'd known each other so long. Since primary school. Perhaps it was because I'd really always imagined doing it for the first time with another man some day.

Nonetheless, I still wanted to make Ernst-Günther a present of myself somehow or other, so I went to see his parents and told them we'd been secretly engaged, we hadn't told them only because we knew they thought we were too young, but later on we'd certainly have married and set up house together and all that.

That made them both weep dreadfully, and I wept, too, much worse than when I heard the news that he had fallen. They didn't want me to go, and begged me to call them Mother and Father, which was not easy for me. But they had no one left to call them that, and they even wanted me to move in with them, although they realized that was going too far. Instead, I promised to come and have supper with them once a week. And although that wasn't so bad, and in fact it was very generous of them since they had no ration card for me and it meant I could save up my rations at home, my decision to go to Munich was made partly so that I could escape the consequences of my well-meant lie.

I didn't want to be a widow yet. I was full of curiosity about living men. I was twenty years old. Twenty at a time when the men were being sent away to die. If just one of them had been left alive after the war, I'd have wanted him for myself.

It was May 1944 when Ernst-Günther fell. I know that because of the cockchafer incident not long afterward. There were huge swarms of cockchafers that year. There have never been so many since. They've almost died out now anyway, and no one but us elderly folk can remember what it was like when they descended like a plague.

It was during one of my grief-stricken wanderings, those long walks I took in memory of my dead school friends and in their honor. I was walking down an avenue of beech trees when all of a sudden I heard a strange whirring in the air. It was like an aircraft approaching to dive-bomb me. And then they descended on me in their thousands. They fell from the trees like rain. The street was covered with cockchafers. I couldn't put my feet down anywhere without hearing them crunch underfoot. I walked over the corpses of countless cockchafers as their shiny brown chitinous shells cracked open. They bounced off my shoulders, they slipped down inside the neckline of my dress.

But my hair was the worst. It was long, and I wore it pinned up in what we called the Gretchen style, a kind of wreath plaited around the forehead and the back of the neck. That was the fashion at the time. There was a suggestion of solstice bonfires about it, a suggestion of harvest festivals and Hitler Youth girls. It suited me. I never needed a perm. My hair is strong and quite curly to this day, and as resistant as the feet of the cockchafers that got caught in it. It was as if they had grown into my hair with their whirring and rustling and crackling. As if I were wearing an invisible fire on my head, and I could feel it constantly burning.

At home they had to cut my hair off. There was no other way to get them out. Now I really did look like Gretchen, but in the last act of Faust, ready for her execution. A hairstyle of shame, my father called it, and I was indeed ashamed. Such a thing as shame existed in those days. Something somber, bad, secret, something that must never come to light. Defilement, racial impurity, and something else, too: One must not acknowledge or guess at its possibility, yet one feared it. This other thing lurked behind everything you saw and heard and knew, a shame so deep that no disgrace, no penance could ever atone for it.

Sometimes we asked each other: What will happen if we lose the war?

What would happen? They would come down on us like avengers; they would torture and kill us. They would enslave our unborn children and make them work in their mines. And God have mercy on you if you were a girl.

So I was thankful to the soldiers for giving their lives for me. What would become of me if they didn't? My life for the lives of Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-Günther, Rudolf, Walter, Max? Not just my life, my honor. Was I worth it? And what exactly was my honor, also called innocence? What was I innocent of? Apart from the hairstyle I now wore, and there really was nothing I could do about that.

She looks as if she's been branded, said my father.

I myself felt as if I'd been branded. As if I'd had my head shaved and been driven through the town so that everyone could see my shame, the way they did with women who slept with Jews or foreigners imported to do forced labor. Yet I hadn't slept with anyone, even Ernst-Günther. And now that he was dead that seemed remarkably unimportant.

Of course my hair soon grew back. But when I arrived to stay with Eva in July, I still saw something in her eyes like mocking amusement at my inability to be as pretty as she was. I knew that, as she saw it, I'd never learn. She was wrong there, however.

Eva was a good teacher of the art of outshining other women by showing yourself off to fashionable advantage, not so much to impress men—that's not the point, that's more of a desirable side effect—as to make other women wonder what they're doing wrong when they set eyes on you. Oh, my dear, don't you know that headscarves are worn over the forehead now? No one, but no one ties them under the chin anymore! She was always catching you out in ignorance of this kind, as if you belonged to a banned political party and still bore its visible signs and tokens about your person. Such women do exist. All efforts made by others to be fashionable are poor copies. These women sweep their followers along with them this way and that, in a factional struggle that passes entirely unnoticed by men, and my cousin Eva was one of them. She was one of them to the very last hour of her life, for which she made herself beautiful.

Good heavens, child, what do you look like? she said when we saw each other again. Well, there's a good hairdresser here. I think I'd better make you an appointment with him straightaway.

But I am running ahead of myself.

When the train drew into Munich I was almost alone in it.

Two days earlier there had been an air attack on the station and its surroundings. The main building had been partially destroyed. Rough board partitions separated the rubble from those areas where it was safe to walk. Notices were still hanging at an angle. Lighting had been torn out, the roof above the platforms was propped up on makeshift posts. I was probably risking my life when I got off the train, but we did that almost all the time anyway.

Every farewell could be forever. Every arrival could be for the last time. Every departure could be final. The young Wehrmacht soldiers boarding the train on the opposite platform knew that many of them would never come back.

I made my way through embracing couples, swaying as they stood there in sorrow and bewilderment, I passed mothers raising their hands lightly to wave good-bye, just sketching the gesture to spare their sons the sight of the collapse they would suffer as soon as the train began to move, one mother with her hand pressed to her mouth, another with her hand still raised in the air, as if she had spent years taming a hawk and had now let it fly free. And there it went, there it went, and who knew if it would ever be seen again?

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Eva's Cousin 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel was based largely on the true story of Eva Braun's last few months of life before Germany's collapse at the end of WWII, and her and her lover's ultimate suicide. It is told through the eyes of her 13 years younger cousin who spent a few equally idyllic and stressful months in Hitler's mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps. Eva's cousin never met Hitler, breaking her silence about her experiences during that time only in recent years. The story is less about Hitler than it is about the thin line love and obsession can draw between ignorance and complicity. I was transfixed while reading this novel. The contrast between the lives of semi-luxury these women lived in and what was going on in the constantly bombed cities below them was riveting. It is important to keep in mind how different things were in those times--how women of a certain station in life were often sheltered from the grim realities of the war, and so it is interesting to see how the cracks begin to show in the facade. It appears Eva Braun rarely spoke to her cousin about Hitler (and never about their, what would have been at the time, scandalous relationship) and on the rare occasions that she did speak of him, it was only in the vaguest of terms. Still, it was clear that she was both obsessed and despondent over him. She lived for his phone calls and fell into a deep melancholy when she would not hear from him for days or weeks at a time. The novel was written in somewhat stoic terms, and it was hard to get a handle on what Eva's cousin felt all those years--shame? guilt? remorse? A fascinating book that leaves you wanting to learn more about the elusive Eva Braun.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago