When Barbara Hummel, a young German woman, is sorting through her late-mother’s possessions she comes across a “mug-shot” photograph of an unknown woman, as well as a studio portrait of an SS officer, taken on Jersey during the war. Barbara’s mother had always told her that her father had died during the war but, as her mother was reluctant to talk about the past, she had always harboured doubts about whether this was true. Eager to discover more about her roots, and recalling some snippets of information her mother had let slip about a priest who took her bird-watching when she was a nurse on Jersey, Barbara is now keen to trace both him and the woman in the photograph, hoping they will be able to help her to discover the truth about her heritage. Little does she realise how many long-held secrets will be exposed as a result of her determined pursuit of the truth, or how much distress this tearing open of old wounds will bring to the three people she tracks down.
Switching between the 1940s during the German Occupation, and London and Jersey in 1985, and using the narrative voices of Dora, Joe and Geoffrey, this dark, tragic and powerfully moving story explores the inter-connectedness of these three characters as they endured the years of war-time occupation and how, post-war, they’d managed to forge new lives only by burying many of their feelings about their experiences. Dora was a German Jew but claimed to be Swedish when she moved to Jersey in the 1940s and, because this deception wasn’t exposed, was able to work as a midwife. It was in this capacity that she first met Geoffrey, when she was called to assist with a birth at his farm; they later developed a close relationship. Joe was a young Irish priest who, although struggling with his faith, managed to find distractions by teaching young boys how to box and going bird-watching, particularly on a favoured location on Geoffrey’s farm.
In order to survive conditions on the island each of these characters was faced with having to make compromises and to do things which would cause them the anguish of shame and guilt. However, in the decades following the end of the war, they’d been reasonably successful in burying their secrets and getting on with their lives. The arrival of Barbara, with all her difficult questions, and her dogged persistence in the face of their initial resistance, quickly undermined their defences, forcing them to re-visit all the painful and shameful memories they had worked so hard to bury.
The author’s background as a professional historian provides a chilling and disturbing authenticity to what happened during those long years of the war. Although I knew quite a lot about the history of the Occupation, as I read this story I felt that not only were additional layers of understanding added to my existing knowledge, but I also discovered much that was new to me, in particular about the vast numbers of women who were trafficked into prostitution, some via brothels in concentration camps, and others in the military brothels which existed on Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney, as well as throughout occupied Europe. I was horrified to discover from the author’s “Afterword” that, despite evidence of sexual offences against these women, these were not included as a “crime against humanity” as defined at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945-6. Little wonder then that these women weren’t inclined to speak out about their experiences, either at the time or after the war; they would have been well-aware of the rough justice meted out to any woman who was seen as having “collaborated” with the enemy. Fear of the humiliation of being tarred and feathered and having her head shaved would have been a powerful reason for any woman to do all she could to avoid such a public humiliation.
Although there were labour camps on Jersey and Guernsey, the author used characters in this book to expose the truly terrible atrocities which took place in the forced-labour camps which were established on Alderney. One of these was Lager Sylt, which was operated under the authority of the SS and was the only concentration camp to be established on British soil. Thousands are thought to have perished as a result of the brutal treatment and the inhumane conditions in these camps but particularly in Lager Sylt, and yet, shockingly, Britain chose not to prosecute its commandant, Maximilian List, thus enabling him to live out his natural life in Hamburg, until his death in the 1980s.
This is a story about hardship and abuse, love, betrayal and loss, humiliation and shame and demonstrates the lengths to which people will go in order to survive such horrific experiences. It also explores the lengths to which those same people will go to not only keep their secrets hidden from the outside world, but also to confine them to the “history” of their unconscious. Through the well-developed characters of Dora, Joe and Geoffrey, the author offered insights into why each of them felt compelled to do this, both during the war as a means to survive, and in the years after the war as a way of coping with the guilt and shame they felt. Their individual voices were so compelling that there were moments when I wanted to reach out to them and to remind them that they were the victims, that they had no cause to feel so much guilt for the decisions they made in order to survive. However, their very stoicism reminded me that they were of a generation which didn’t easily talk about traumatic experiences, not for them the offer of any post-traumatic counselling, they just quietly got on with their lives, even though this meant that so much of what was left unsaid and unacknowledged left profound emotional scars.
Although much of the story is focused on the three main characters, Barbara was also very well portrayed. Her role was pivotal in the gradual emergence of the background stories of Dora, Joe and Geoffrey, but it also enabled the author to explore the legacy of guilt she experienced as a post-war child of a Germany scarred by the legacy of Nazism. ‘It’s been difficult for my generation of Germans,’ she said. ‘To live in the shadow of the war, with parents refusing to admit what happened. We took on their guilt.’ ‘You can’t be blamed for the past.’ ‘No, but we are responsible for the future. We need to account for what went on, before we can forge ahead. That doesn’t start in the archive. It starts at home.’
Her descriptions of brutal treatment in general, but particularly those of women forced into prostitution and military bordellos, were harrowing at times and more than once I found myself in tears. However, there was never a moment when I felt that the writing was either sensationalised or in any way judgemental about the choices any of her characters made: rather, as the author deftly interwove past and present, it was measured and full of compassion and always thought-provoking. Another of the strengths of this remarkable story lies in the fact that the author managed to convey the impact on the whole community, as well as on individuals, of occupation, of the brutalising effects of war and the inevitable abuse of power exercised by the occupying forces.
This is a complex, multi-layered story which explores the hardships, abuse and fear people faced when living on the Channel Islands during the period of occupation. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and are expecting something similar from this story I should warn you that Mary Chamberlain’s novel is considerably darker in its exploration of the effects this period had on so many of the islands’ residents, and even on the very landscape of the islands. However, although it is so viscerally disturbing, this is probably why I found this book a much more satisfying read. It is one which I know will remain vivid in my memory so I recommend it without any hesitation to anyone who enjoys multi-faceted characters, nuanced, highly evocative prose and an exceptionally well-crafted story. It would also make an ideal choice for reading groups.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
The Hidden by Mary Chamberlain
Oneworld Publications 9781786076625 pbk Sep 2019