Dining for the devil

Rosella Postroni’s novel about Hitler’s food-tasters is a flimsy whitewashing of German complicity.

ADOLF HITLER dines with Russian foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov in 1940. (photo credit: FLICKR)
ADOLF HITLER dines with Russian foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov in 1940.
(photo credit: FLICKR)
Italian novelist Rosella Postorino thought she had found literary gold when she accidentally came across an unusual newspaper story. But literary gold is just the kernel of something that could become great, provided the author possesses the imaginative and intellectual power to make it so.
The story that caught Postorino’s eye was about a 96-year-old German woman named Margot Wolk, who confessed shortly before her death to a journalist from the Berliner Zeitung, that she had been one of Hitler’s 15 food-tasters. She and the 14 other German women were conscripted by the SS, and each day brought to the Wolfsschanze, known as the“Wolf’s Lair,” to taste the führer’s food to ensure it had not been poisoned. The women would remain seated for an hour after each meal and watched carefully for any adverse reactions to make sure the food was safe for Hitler. Wolk alone survived the war. The other 14 women were killed by Soviet soldiers.
Wolk lived in Gross-Partsch near the Wolfsschanze with her in-laws. Her husband had been missing for a long time, and Wolk presumed he was dead. After the war, she found him and they remained married until his death in 1980. Wolk died in 2014. Postorino never got to meet Wolk and decided to fictionalize her story by attempting to imagine what it might have been like to be in her shoes. Her novel, titled At the Wolf’s Table, has now been translated from the Italian by Leah Jeneczko.
Postorino herself wondered what she might have done, and states – without comprehending the historical relevance of her casual assertion – that not all of us are heroes. She assumes Wolk waited until 96 to speak to the press due to lingering shame and guilt, but doesn’t give this declaration the clout it surely deserves. We immediately sense that Postorino, even before beginning her flimsy novel, is already focused on titillation, shock and awe, instead of the questions that are really worthy of serious contemplation.
Rosa Sauer, Postorino’s central character, is a 26-year-old, attractive woman from Berlin who loves to chat and sing and dress carefully. She created Rosa by relying on her own personal inclinations. Rosa speaks to us in a somewhat misty first-person voice, which is coming to us from someplace in the future that remains mysterious. Postorino never allows her character Rosa to share with us how she was able to go on living after the war. 
Did she tell anyone in secret? Did she make attempts to atone? Did she have children? How did she cope with the violence she saw? Could she sleep at night? Could she forget? 
Rosa pretty much follows the main events in Wolk’s life, but Postorino adds her own fictional flourishes. Yet Postorino repeatedly neglects to address the elephant in the room. The author never creatively imagines who Wolk really was – and more importantly – who she became. In short, for the most part, the author refuses to look at German denial before, during and after the war. Nor does she examine the almost complete lack of resistance by German civilians to the Nazi regime which Daniel Jonah Goldhagen wrote so eloquently about in Hitler’s Willing Executioners.
POSTORINO BOASTS that she did extensive research for this book. She read William L. Shirer’s History of the Third Reich, memoirs by Hitler’s secretaries, and books about the foods the führer preferred to eat. But her characters are sketchily drawn. The women with whom she eats each day are divided into groups. There are “the fanatics,” who are proud to risk their lives each day to protect Hitler. There is Leni, who is childlike and innocent. There are two friends who are young mothers and have been close forever. And we hear a lot about Elfriede, to whom Rosa is drawn, unaware she is a Jew hiding in secret and pretending to be a German matron. But none of these women spring to life.
A disturbing excess of attention is given to SS Commandant Ziegler, with whom Rosa is conducting a passionate affair. He has been demoted to overseeing the food-tasters after being unable to emotionally handle his commanding role in the mass murder of Jews. Rosa describes their rendezvous each night as he appears by her window and they retreat to the barn: “I could make love to Ziegler while ignoring who he was. In the barn, there were only our bodies, our joking, and that little boy I had formed an alliance with – nothing else.” 
Their nights of passion are repeated frequently throughout the book for reasons that seem gratuitous.
Rosa is also occasionally summoned to the baroness’s house, a woman drawn to Rosa due to their shared love of singing and books. One time, she asks Rosa to play the piano for her, and Rosa complies while staring at a picture of Hitler hanging over the piano. The baroness tells her that this man will save Germany and solicits her enthusiastic response. When Rosa demurs, the baroness repeats her comments, demanding Rosa’s allegiance.
Almost 200 pages in, Postorino suddenly and unexpectedly has Rosa confess: “I could have known then about the mass graves, about the Jews who lay prone, huddled together, waiting for the shot to the back of the head, could have known about the earth shoveled onto their backs, and the wood ash and calcium hypochlorite so they wouldn’t stink, about the new layers of Jews who would lie down on the corpses and offer the backs of their heads in turn. I could have known about the children picked up by the hair and shot, about the kilometer-long lines of Jews and Russians – They’re Asian, they’re not like us – ready to fall into the grave or climb onto trucks to be gassed with carbon monoxide. I could have learned about it before the end of the war. I could have asked. But I was afraid and couldn’t speak and didn’t want to know.” 
She adds quickly “What did we know back then?” We are aggravated by Rosa’s sudden regurgitation, and infuriated by the weak denial that almost immediately follows what seems to be a half-hearted attempt at some sort of mea culpa.
Which is why we are left nauseated by the thrust of Postorino’s narrative. It fuels a dangerous distortion in thinking that has been growing in Germany. There has been a shift from Germans taking responsibility for the crimes they committed, to a new self-sympathy that allows them to paint themselves as fellow victims. Silence about the war still dominates the private sphere of many German families. Children understand by a young age not to ask about what grandpa did during the war. Guilt has been morphing into anger; an anger thrust again upon the Jews.
URSULA DUB, a German-American scholar who studies antisemitism, spoke movingly at Yale University in 1999 and said this about contemporary German youth culture: “I would not like to leave any of you with the notion that any of these sullen and angry young Germans are harboring homicidal intentions towards Jews. This is definitely not the case. But I am greatly concerned about the lack of empathy so many young Germans have toward victims of the Holocaust, and that it is difficult, if not impossible for them to express sorrow. In some way, the denial of empathy and sorrow constitutes another way of eliminating Jews and their very existence.”
One could make the same case about Postorino’s novel. At the Wolf’s Table silences and negates the Jews, and shows little empathy for them or the suffering they endured. We leave Postorino’s book feeling demoralized by her historical revisionism, and her lack of concern for the victims of the Holocaust. She chooses to focus her lens upon Germans who seemed to have trouble looking back, Germans who would prefer to forget, Germans who are trying to find their way out of an abyss without any real remorse or reckonings, Germans who are tired of feeling responsible or culpable for the crimes of their families, Germans who are changing the historical discussion about Nazism and their role in it.
Perhaps the outrageous nature of Wolk’s work as a food-taster for Hitler will help Postorino attract more readers than she deserves. Her book has just been translated into English, and has received positive reviews in Italy where it has already been released. One reviewer had the audacity to compare Postorino’s work to Primo Levi – the Holocaust survivor who wrote stoically about his time in Nazi concentration camps. 
So we Jews are forced to witness – before the last Holocaust survivor has been buried – as the lines blur between what was once something as clear cut as the Nazis’ depravity. We are witness to German resistance to the truth, to young Germans choosing to wallow in denial, to a grotesque reassessment among many Germans that the perpetrators were somehow victims, too. 
Where can all of this possibly lead?
Postorino had the chance to produce a work that could have attempted to genuinely struggle with German contemporary culture and its Nazi past. She could have done so with compelling insights and depth and the complexity it deserves. She blew it.
ADOLF HITLER dines with Russian foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov in 1940. (Flickr)
By Rosella Postorino
Flatiron Books
288 pages; $26.99
Did she tell anyone in secret? Did she make attempts to atone? Did she have children? How did she cope with the violence she saw? Could she sleep at night? Could she forget?