After reading a compelling review that left me with a tear in my eye about Chocolate Cake With Hitler, which can be found here, I decided to hunt it down. I just finished it and I know the story will haunt me for a long, long time.
Chocolate Cake With Hitler is historical fiction, written by Emma Craigie, and takes place in Hitler’s bunker during the last 10 days of WWII. It is told through the voice of twelve year old Helga Goebbels, the oldest daughter of Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and right hand man to Hitler. Helga speaks of her days in the bunker, with flashbacks to her earlier days as the war machine grinds forward.
Because of her father’s postion, Helga and her brother and sisters are sheltered from the horrors of the war, but, throughout the book there are clues. The sudden disappearance of a young Jewish friend that Helga sneaks off to meet. The “thunder” in the background, that Helga suspects is bombing. The erratic behavior of her father. The hint of affairs of both of her parents.
Then, the bunker, where the children are summoned to, to “be safe” as the Russians advance on Berlin. They are the only children in the Bunker, her parents refusing to send them to safety.
The story is based on fact. We know that Russian soldiers found the six Goebbels children lying abed in their white bedclothes, the girls with ribbons in their hair, all in row, poisoned, as the bunker is stormed. We know that Helga is the only one who had bruises on her face, supposedly because she resisted the crushed cyanide forced into her mouth. We know her mother, Magda, killed them, and that her parents steadfastly refused to send them to safety. We know from their letters and diaries that they felt their children better off dead than in a world without “Uncle Leader”. We know all this, yet the fictionalized story through the perspective of a young girl, on the verge of becoming a woman, is a devastatingly haunting story, sparse and well told.
Knowing all this history and being so moved by Rachel’s poignant review, I was still stunned at the end. I put the book down, face down, and I walked away, feeling grief stricken at the horror of it all. The clues throughout of Helga’s story; premonitions of her father’s behavior, her grandmother’s stories of an earlier life with a Jewish husband and friends and daughter Magda’s young Jewish love. The propaganda so well contrived by Helga’s father, so well documented on the Nazi control over the arts and the media, that led to the deaths of millions. Millions of innocents, all at the hands of the Nazis, including, in the end, Goebbels’ own children, alone on a bed in a bunker, miles under Berlin.
Emma Craigie tells the story well. It is not easy to tell a story from the prospective of a child. A part of me wishes I had not read the book, Chocolate Cake With Hitler. It will stay with me for a long, long time, like Sophie’s Choice and QBVII and Hiroshima. That stunned feeling I had when I read the short story, “The Lottery”, in high school.
It is good to be stunned by the horrors of war at the end of May, when we honor our soldiers on Memorial Day. Perhaps there was a reason I kept the book for a while before finally reading it this last week in May. I did not plan it that way – at least not consciously – but it is the way it played out for me a I sat, for just a few days, with this small book on my lap and a lump in my throat as I turned the last pages of Chocolate Cake With Hitler.