The Women at Hitler’s Table is based on the extraordinary true story of Margot Wölk. She was one of fifteen women in the Prussian town of Patsch who were employed to taste the food prepared for Adolf Hitler while he was at his nearby headquarters, the so-called Wolf’s Lair. This was to ensure the food had not been poisoned: if the women survived for an hour after eating, the food was fit to serve to Hitler.
In Rosella Postorino’s novel the central character is Rosa, one of ten food tasters. She is a glamorous Berliner who has come to stay at the farm belonging to her parents-in-law while her husband is away fighting. One strand of the story is that of the food tasters themselves, reluctant conscripts whose fear of poisoning becomes normalised, and who form shifting alliances with one another. Another strand is a clandestine, rather uncomfortable, love affair. The story shows Rosa’s confusion and conflicting emotions. She is ill at ease in a country farmhouse, and worried about her husband. She struggles to fit in with the other food testers, but enjoys a brief friendship with Maria, a local aristocrat.
Of course, the person at the centre of events is Hitler himself, but we only ever see him at a remove. He is described as a sensitive man, who listens to opera and obsesses about his own health. He will not eat meat, because “he can’t stand the cruelty of the slaughterhouses”.
We get an insight into how ordinary Germans viewed the Nazis. They range from Rosa’s father, whose prospects were ruined by his refusal to join the party, to a group of women she calls “The Fanatics” on account of their blind devotion to Hitler. Others are indifferent, doing whatever is needed in order to survive. And the callous disregard with which the officers treat the food tasters is a reminder that many Germans lived in fear of their own leaders.
The novel raises some big questions. Can God exist, and can it be right to bring children into such a troubled world? The questions are reinforced by religious imagery. For instance, Rosa says “I would participate in the liturgy of the lunch room… an army of worshippers prepared to receive on our tongues a Communion that wouldn’t redeem us”.
Rosa’s narrative is mostly objective, showing her resignation to whatever fate throws at her. But the occasional jumbled sequence, recalling her childhood nightmares, emphasises the abnormality of her situation. Although I found the ending slightly rushed and unsatisfactory, it is perhaps an indication of how her wartime experience would continue to haunt Rosa for the rest of her life.
This is the first of Rosella Postorino’s novels to be translated into English from the original Italian. I suspect that we will be hearing more of her.
The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino, translated by Leah Janeczko. Harper Collins, 2019, hardback, £12.99, 9780008377274