From the dawn of time, war has, by its very nature, necessitated secrecy. To be victorious, one leader could not let his/her strategy fall into enemy hands. As time progressed, this basic necessity evolved into the lies leaders and generals told to those victimized by it, as well as those the soldiers who risked their lives told themselves in order to carry on.
But never was this clearer than during World War II. From party theories about eugenics and the creation of a pure Aryan race, to propaganda against the Jews and other undesirable groups, the Nazi regime built their power based on lies in which they firmly believed. However, it wasn’t just the Germans. The Allies had their fair share of lies, including that America would not and could not become involved in the war. According to many historians, this isolationist policy, the misguided belief that America need not get involved in the rest of the world’s problems, caused the war to drag on, needlessly sacrificing thousands of lives. It was only when Japan brought the war to the United States that the scales fell from people’s eyes.
Alex Rosenberg’s The Girl from Krakow, a new historical novel set in World War II, is also based on secrets and lies. It delves into the personal side of many of these same issues, bringing them down from a national level to a very private one in the story of a woman, her husband, her lovers and the lies they live with each and every day, including one with the power to change the war.
It is likely that many people in Nazi-occupied lands lived in similar circumstances, knowing a little more than was good for them, doing things of which they were later ashamed, and holding their hearts closed, lest their inner turmoil hurt or endanger the ones they love. As we learn in this novel, ultimately, stories of war are stories of sacrifice, of what we give up to regain tenuous peace (even if only within our own hearts). Rosenberg takes this idea a step further, suggesting that the true outcome is neither war nor peace, but the meaning we find in suffering, whether that comes within our lifetime or from decades of hindsight. That we struggled to understand at all is a victory in and of itself.
The aftermath of these secrets and lies are a concept we’re still grappling with 70 years after D-Day. As we know now, secrecy was the ultimate weapon on both sides of the war. The Resistance relied on secrecy to perform their acts of revolt and sabotage, hiding their true identities from the authorities and one another under code names and often using forged documents to travel. Routes into and out of occupied lands were known only to a select few couriers who aided the persecuted in escaping to areas where they would be safe. So tightly woven was this system of rebellion that one slip of the tongue or confession under torture could mean the arrest and imprisonment of an entire branch of the Resistance.
The Gestapo could and did infiltrate anywhere – from all branches of the military, to factories, railroads, art museums and even within the Resistance itself. So effective were their techniques that no one knew whom to trust, even within their own family, and telling the truth to the wrong person could be a death sentence.
“Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) is another example of the lengths to which the Nazi secrecy stretched. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, this decree “directed that persons in occupied territories engaging in activities intended to undermine the security of German troops were, upon capture, to be brought to Germany ‘by night and fog’ for trial by special courts, thus circumventing military procedure and various conventions governing the treatment of prisoners.” This way, people could be killed or made to disappear quietly, often to concentration camps.
The camps, as we now know, were places of utter depravity, frequent death, and horrible experimentation. But at the time, they were known as labor and retention camps where political prisoners engaged in forced labor for the good of the regime. Relatives were even sent letters from inmates who were forced to write about what a good life they were living in Germany, when the reality was they were wasting away, bruised, broken and near death. The real situation in the camps often was not known until after they were liberated by Soviet, British or American troops who were as appalled as the rest of the world about what they found.
In the end, whether real or fictional, the secrets and lies took their toll – on the human heart, on families, nations and history itself. Novels like The Girl from Krakow are important because they remind us that no lie – no matter how white – no secret – no matter how small – comes without consequences. If we find ourselves complicit in them, we must be prepared to live with the results and do our best to find a deeper meaning in them.
About the contributor: Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction and women’s fiction author, as well as a book reviewer for HNS, Historical Honey and Sirens. She can be found online at http://nicoleevelina.com.