My Enemy's Cradle

My Enemy's Cradle

4.4 39
by Sara Young

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Cyrla's neighbors have begun to whisper. Her cousin, Anneke, is pregnant and has passed the rigorous exams for admission to the Lebensborn, a maternity home for girls carrying German babies. But Anneke's soldier has disappeared, and Lebensborn babies are only ever released to their father's custody-- or taken away.

A note is left under the mat.

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Cyrla's neighbors have begun to whisper. Her cousin, Anneke, is pregnant and has passed the rigorous exams for admission to the Lebensborn, a maternity home for girls carrying German babies. But Anneke's soldier has disappeared, and Lebensborn babies are only ever released to their father's custody-- or taken away.

A note is left under the mat. Someone knows that Cyrla, sent from Poland years before for safekeeping with her Dutch relatives, is Jewish. The Nazis are imposing more and more restrictions; she won't be safe there for long.

And then in the space of an afternoon, life falls apart. Cyrla must choose between certain discovery in her cousin's home and taking Anneke's place in the Lebensborn--Cyrla and Anneke are nearly identical. If she takes refuge in the enemy's lair, can Cyrla fool the doctors, nurses, guards, and other mothers-to-be? Can she escape before they discover she is not who she claims?

Mining a lost piece of history, Sara Young takes us deep into the lives of women living in the worst of times. Part love story and part elegy for the terrible choices we must often make to survive, MY ENEMY'S CRADLE keens for what we lose in war and sings for the hope we sometimes find.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Children's-book author Young (who, as Sara Pennypacker, penned the celebrated Stuart series) makes a stunning adult debut with this beautifully told and heart-wrenching novel set in WWII Europe. Cyrla, half-Jewish, is no longer safe hiding in the home of her Dutch relatives under the increasingly harsh Nazi occupation. When cousin Annika, whom Cyrla closely resembles, becomes pregnant by a German soldier, Annika's father enrolls her in a Lebensborn, a birthing center for Aryan children, where the slogan is "Have one baby for the Führer." In a tragic turn of events, Cyrla discovers her only chance of survival is to hide in plain sight: she must assume Annika's identity and live in the German Lebensborn until rescued. Within the Lebensborn's walls, mothers-to-be receive proper nutrition and medical care until their children are taken from them for adoption into Aryan families The horrors Cyrla witnesses are softened only by her resounding optimism and strength. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Nazi regime was the Lebensborn program, which promoted the expansion of the "master race" by encouraging German women and those who were racially "pure" in its occupied countries to bear as many children as possible. Young explores the experiences of these women in her fictional story of Cyrla, a young Polish/Dutch woman who enters a Lebensborn maternity home in place of her cousin Annika, who died tragically. Unbeknown to the officials, Cyrla is half Jewish and must walk a tightrope as she plots her escape. Despite a few too many far-fetched plot contrivances, the subject matter is of immediate interest and sympathy. At the book's outset, Cyrla is strident, idealistic, and foolishly outspoken, but as she matures she begins to understand the complexity of the world around her and the people she has known. An unexpected development midway through the novel helps make this a real page-turner. Recommended for most public libraries.
—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman

Kirkus Reviews
In children's author Young's first novel for adults, a Polish Jew in World War II Holland finds temporary safety in the Lebensborn, a maternity home the Nazis set up to breed Aryan babies. Cyrla's deceased mother was a Dutch Christian, and in the late 1930s Cyrla's Jewish father sends her from Poland to live in Holland with her Christian aunt's family. When the novel opens in 1941, Cyrla's cousin and best friend, Annika, has fallen in love with a handsome young German officer, Karl, and become pregnant. To avoid disgrace she agrees to enter a nearby Lebensborn, but she commits suicide before she can go because Karl has refused to take responsibility for the pregnancy. By now Germans have begun rounding up Jews. Although distraught, Annika's mother plots to save Cyrla by having her take Annika's place at the Lebensborn. Cyrla goes to Isaac, the Jewish activist she's been in love with for years. He claims he's incapable of love but agrees to impregnate her, then arrange for her safe exodus. Eleven days later, a pregnant Cyrla-her easy fecundity is the novel's first but not last credibility stretch-leaves for the Lebensborn though not before she is savagely (and gratuitously) raped by an SS soldier. In the Lebensborn, Cyrla carries on her charade as Annika while waiting to hear from Isaac. Then Karl shows up. It seems Annika never told him she was pregnant; he broke up with her first because he was already in love with Cyrla. Karl, who hates the Nazis, takes great risks to help Cyrla. Despite her initial distrust, she eventually acknowledges she loves him. Their far-fetched romance is at odds with the well-researched description of the Nazi maternity program, and although Young tries toavoid stereotyping, many of the supporting characters are two-dimensional at best. Earnest but ultimately sentimental rather than profound.
"Secrets of betrayal, love, and honor drive the plot in this riveting historical novel about a young woman caught up in the Nazi Lebensborn program.... Cyrla's intimate, first-person narrative reveals the horrific history through unforgettable individual experience of guilt and sacrifice. Readers will be haunted by the intricacies of friends and enemies in a story that has been seldom told."

author of The Deep End of the Ocean - Jacquelyn Mitchard
"Tenderly and fiercely felt, Young's tale of a young Jewish woman trapped in the sinister web of the Nazi Lebensborn program is that true find, a story truly never before told. And yet, through emotions we know—that a mother must cherish her child, that hope will refuse despair, that passion will deny even mortal danger—it immediately becomes our own."
author of Talk Before Sleep - Elizabeth Berg
"What a story! MY ENEMY'S CRADLE offers intrigue, suspense, compassion, heartbreak and joy. Sara Young writes with the intelligence and authority of an historian, but also with the sensitivity, precision, insight and grace of a poet. I was hooked from page one, and found the ending to be one of the most satisfying I've read in a long time. "

author of The Knitting Circle - Ann Hood
"MY ENEMY'S CRADLE has everything: It is a page turner full of twists and turns. It is a love story. It is a war story. It reveals a dark piece of history. There is only one caveat to this novel: you will want to read it straight through. So put aside absolutely everything, and begin."

author of Those Who Save Us - Jenna Blum
"As her spirited heroine Cyrla navigates the treacherous labyrinth of the SS breeding nurseries, Sara Young shines a powerful flashlight on one of the lesser-known Nazi atrocities: the thievery of children from their mothers. Young's research is so scrupulous that when devouring this novel, you'll swear you're reading a genuine survivor account, and you'll hold your breath as Cyrla attempts to find and found her own family."

author of The Kommandant's Girl - Pam Jenoff
"By populating her book with complex and vibrant characters, Sara Young succeeds in bringing this previously little known aspect of World War II history to life. Young explores with an unwavering voice the timeless, universal and yet intensely personal themes of love, loss, morality and the choices that shape our lives."

author of Entering Normal - Anne Leclaire
"In this compelling first novel set against the little known Nazi Lebensborn program, Sara Young creates a heroine the reader will not easily forget - Cyrla, a young woman trying to keep her infant safe while hiding a dangerous secret. MY ENEMY'S CRADLE goes to the very heart of hope and how it can survive in even the darkest and most dangerous of times."

From the Publisher

"Young's youthful characters--especially her heroine, Cyrla--are utterly believable, their longings, fears and hopes etched with an authenticity and sense of urgency that make this story vibrate on the page . . . Intensely romantic in a way that only wartime fiction can be. And it invokes, with a bit of an ache, Anne Frank's optimistic belief in happy endings."--USA Today
"Sara Young shines a powerful flashlight on one of the lesser-known Nazi atrocities: the thievery of children from their mothers. Young's research is so scrupulous that when devouring this novel, you'll swear you're reading a genuine survivor account."--Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us

USA Today
"Young's youthful characters—especially her heroine, Cyrla—are utterly believable, their longings, fears and hopes etched with an authenticity and sense of urgency that make this story vibrate on the page...The fact that Young has drawn on a relativity obscure bit of World War II history makes Cradle even more intriguing...intensely romantic in a way that only wartime fiction can be. And it invokes, with a bit of an ache, Anne Frank's optimistic belief in happy endings."

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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“Not here, too! Nee!


From the doorway, I saw soup splash from my aunt’s ladle onto the tablecloth. These days, there was no fat in the broth to set a stain; still, my heart dropped when she made no move to blot the spill. Since the Germans had come, she had retreated further into herself, fading away in front of me so that sometimes it was like losing my mother all over again.


“Of course here, Mies,” my uncle scoffed. His pale face pinked with the easy flush of red-haired men, and he leaned back and took off his glasses to polish them on his napkin. “Did you think the Germans would annex us as a refuge for Jews? The question is only why it took so long.”


I brought the bread to the table and took my seat. “What’s happened?”


“They posted a set of restrictions for Jews today,” my uncle said. “They’ll scarcely be able to leave their homes.” He inspected his glasses, put them back on. And then he turned to look at me directly.


I froze, my fingertips whitening around my spoon, suddenly reminded of something I’d witnessed in childhood.


Walking home from school, a group of us had come upon a man beating his dog. All of us shouted at him to stop—our numbers made us brave—and some of the bigger boys even tried to pull him off the poor animal. A boy beside me caught my attention; this boy, I knew, was himself often beaten by the older boys. He was crying, “Stop! Stop it!” along with the rest of us. But something in his expression chilled me: satisfaction. When my uncle turned to look at me, I saw that boy’s face again.


“Things will be different now, Cyrla.”


I dropped my gaze to my plate, but I felt my heart begin to pound. Was he weighing the risk of having me in his home?


His home. I stared down at the white tablecloth. Beneath it, a table rug was edged with gold silk fringe. When I had first arrived it had seemed strange to cover a table this way, but now I knew every color and pattern of its design. I lifted my eyes to take in the room I had come to love: the tall windows painted crisp white overlooking our small courtyard; the three watercolors of the Rijksmuseum hanging in a column on their braided cord; the glimpse into the parlor beyond the burgundy velvet drapes, where the piano stood in the corner, necklaced with framed photographs of our family. My heart began to beat even faster—where did I belong if not here?


I glanced at my cousin—Anneke was my safe passage through the treacherous landscape of my uncle’s world. But she had been distracted all day, drifting away whenever I’d tried to talk to her, as if she was harboring a secret. She hadn’t even heard her father’s threat.


“What?” I kept my voice calm. “What will be different here?”


He was cutting the bread. He didn’t stop, but I saw the warning look he gave my aunt. “Everything.” He cut three slices from the loaf and then laid the knife down carefully. “Everything will be different.”


I drew the loaf toward me, picked up the knife as deliberately as a chess piece, and cut a fourth slice. I laid the knife back on the board, then placed my hands on my lap so he wouldn’t see them trembling. I lifted my chin and leveled my eyes at him. “You counted wrong, Uncle,” I said. He looked away, but his face was dark as a bruise.


At last the meal was over. My uncle returned to his shop to take care of his bookkeeping, and my aunt and Anneke and I cleared the table and went into the kitchen to wash the dishes. We worked in silence; I in my fear, my aunt in her sadness, Anneke deep in her secret.


Suddenly Anneke cried out. The bread knife clattered to the floor and she held up her hand; blood streamed into the basin of suds, tingeing the bubbles pink. I grabbed a dishcloth and pressed it around Anneke’s hand, then led her to the window seat. She sank down and stared at the blood seeping through the dishcloth as though it was a curiosity. I grew afraid, then. Anneke was vain about her hands, would go without her ration of milk sometimes to soak them in it instead, and she could still find nail polish when it seemed no one in Holland had such a luxury. If she didn’t carry on about a cut deep enough to scar, then her secret was very big.


My aunt knelt to examine the wound, chiding her for her carelessness. Anneke closed her eyes and tipped her head back; with her free hand she stroked the hollow at the base of her throat with a contented smile. It was the look she wore when she crept back into our room in the middle of the night . . . flushed and deepened, rearranged.


I did not like Karl.


And then I knew.


“What have you done?” I whispered to her when my aunt left to fetch the disinfectant and muslin.


“Later,” she whispered back. “When everyone is asleep.”


There was ironing and darning to do, and that night it seemed to take forever. We listened to Hugo Wolf ’s music on the phonograph while we did these chores, and I wished for silence again because for the first time I could hear how the tragedy of Wolf ’s life flowed through his music. The beauty itself was doomed. When my aunt said good night, Anneke and I exchanged looks and went upstairs as well.


We washed quickly and put on our nightclothes. I couldn’t wait another moment. “Tell me now.”


My cousin turned to me, and I’d never seen her smile so beautifully.


“A wonderful thing, Cyrla,” she said, reaching down to stroke her belly.


The cut on her finger had begun to bleed again; the bandage was soaked through. As she stood in front of me smiling and caressing her belly, a smear of blood bloomed across the pale blue cotton of her nightgown.





“I’m leaving. I’m leaving here!” Now Anneke could hardly stop talking. “We’ll get married here, at the town hall I suppose. Karl’s family lives outside Hamburg—maybe we’ll get a place there when the war is over, with a garden for children, near a park, maybe. . . .Hamburg, Cyrla!”


“Shhhhhh!” I quieted her. “She’ll hear.” It wasn’t my aunt we were careful of, but Mrs. Bakker in the next house, which shared a wall with ours. She was old and had nothing better to do with her days than spy on people and gossip about what she’d learned. She sat in her front parlor all morning long and watched the goings-on of Tielman Oemstraat through the two mirrors attached to her windows. We knew from her coughing that her bedroom was next to ours, and we didn’t think it would be beneath her to hold a glass to the wall. But I didn’t really care about Mrs. Bakker at all. I wanted to stop Anneke’s words.


I unwrapped her finger and cleaned it with water from the wash pitcher. “Change your nightgown. I’ll go downstairs for more bandages.” Out in the hall, I made myself breathe calmly again. I gathered the muslin strips, and also a cup of milk and a plate of spekulaas—Anneke had hardly eaten at supper, but she loved the little spice cookies she smuggled home from the bakery. If I distracted her, I wouldn’t have to hear her plans. And if she saw how much she needed me, she might understand that it was a mistake to leave. It was always a mistake to leave.


We sat on her bed and I dressed her finger; I couldn’t look into her face although I felt her studying mine. “Are you sure? And how did this even . . . weren’t you careful . . . ?”


Anneke looked away. “These things happen.” Then she broke into her brilliant smile, the one that always disarmed me. “A baby . . . think of it!”


I wrapped my arms around her and laid my head on her chest, breathing in the scent she brought home to us from the bakery each day—baked sugar, sweet and warm, so perfectly suited to her. What scent clung to me, I wondered. Vinegar from the pickling I’d been doing all week? Lye from the upholstery shop?


Anneke stroked the tears from my cheeks. “I’m sorry, Cyrla,” she said. “I’ll miss you so much. More than anyone else.”


That was my cousin’s way. Sometimes she was careless with my feelings—not in cruelty, but in the innocent way that beautiful girls sometimes have, as if being thoughtful were a skill they had never needed to learn. But when she did think of me, her sweetness, completely unmeasured, would fill me with shame.


“But I’m so happy!” she cried, as if her face weren’t already telling me this. “And he’s so handsome!” She fell back onto the bed, clutching her heart. “He looks just like Rhett Butler, don’t you think?”


I sighed in mock exasperation. “He looks nothing like Rhett Butler, for heaven’s sakes. For one thing, he’s blond.”


Anneke waved this detail away with her bandaged hand.


“And he has blue eyes. And no mustache.” I rose and brought the glass of milk from the dresser over to her night table. “All right. He’s handsome. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”


Anneke laughed and sat up. “You’ll be an aunt! And the war will be over soon, and then you can visit.”



Copyright © 2008 by Sara Young


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.


Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887–6777.


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