From earliest ages, we have poured ourselves into holocaust literature, trying to understand, witness, empathize. For the most part, the perspective has been a Jewish one, sometimes a scholarly dissertation, a history book, a probe into evil, a horrifying tale or memoir. And we are mystified, amazed, speechless. We are fascinated, distracted, hurt, aware, for we as survivors, the children or cousins or descendants or friends of survivors are only able to glimpse the horrors we did not experience. Thank G-d.
As years pass and more distance accumulates, we can stand slightly apart and instead of engulfed in tears and anger, we are able to glean other stories, perhaps not written by those whose narratives are first hand. In At the Wolfs Table by Rosella Postorino, she rewrites the story of the last surviving woman tester, Margaret Wolk, forced to taste Hitler’s food before he did. Although Postorino changes Margaret’s name to Rosa, recalling her own name, Rosella ,the author, personally embodies the question of the protagonist faced with a terrible moral dilemma : What would I do if…..? By sampling Hitler’s food, Rosa/Margaret is ensuring Hitler’s survival, and knowingly supports his war endeavours and atrocities. Obsessed with her protagonist’s issues of guilt and responsibility, Postorino states, “We cannot ask everyone to be a hero, and I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary woman.”
Margaret Wolk was a secretary living in Berlin in 1941, married to Karl, with Jewish friends. Her husband departed for war and her apartment was bombed, forcing her to relocate in Gross- Partsch( now Poland) to live with her mother-in-law. The details of the true life are closely replicated in Postorino’s book as she describes the circumstances of Rosa’s life : her meals of vegetables, grains and fruits Hitler demanded in his diet; her escape on Goebbel’s train aided by a Nazi; and even the return of her husband from a Soviet prison camp. Because Wolk died at 95 before Postorino could interview her, she gleaned the facts revealed in podcasts, articles and newspapers such as der Spiegel that lay out the interment at Wolfsschanze and after. It took decades for Wolk to speak publicly about her wartime life.
Rosa Sauer, our protagonist in Postorino’s book is a sympathetic German, forced along with nine other women in the story to taste Hitler’s food to avoid his being poisoned. Born into a family who has resisted and scorned Hitler’s philosophies, Rosa’s idealistic father is a railway worker, her mother a seamstress so Rosa comes to the reader as the innocent bystander. She recalls a vivid memory from high school fixated on Adam Wortmann, a beloved math teacher, marched away because he was a Jew.
She confides ,” I had never been a good German”, and explains even at an early age, she had played at the game of death by swallowing threads from her mother’s creations. Rosa’s mother dies when their apartment is bombed and Rosa continually returns to her past, her former life and her mother’s admonitions regarding the necessity of eating. She remembers her mother saying that eating was a way to battle death: “She said it even before Hitler, back when I went to elementary school”. Chosen by the town mayor in Gross- Partsch as a taster, Rosa has become party to the war effort and so, the correlation between food and endurance continues : ironic when most are starving. Three times a day , a bounty of asparagus, peppers, peas, rice, salads, milk and even cakes are her daily fare : “ Hitler nourished me and that nourishment could kill me.”, she relates.
Rosa says, “We were ten digestive tracts.” Wolk herself commented, “Some of the women cried at the beginning of every meal, fearing the food [was] indeed poisoned and they were going to die. We had to taste everything and wait an hour, after which we cried our eyes out, knowing that we were saved, day after day.” Although treated to delicacies and the finest foods, eating is far from a comfortable, enjoyable pastime. In one scene in the book, many women succumb, faint, become extremely ill, vomit, but ultimately recover .Hitler’s tasters are always in peril, for the food might be toxic ;the Allies, but especially England had wanted to destroy Hitler.
Fears for Hitler’s security were not unfounded. On July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenbergs, a trusted soldier, detonated a bomb in the Wolfsschanze in an attempt to kill Hitler. He survived, but nearly 5,000 people were executed following the assassination attempt. In the story, Rosa describes meeting von Stauffenbergs at a party given by her father-in-law’s employer, the baroness who is quite taken with the Fuhrer, believing he will save Germany. She is also entranced by Rosa, inviting her to the castle where they ride horses, talk books, music, film and theatre: a contrast and brief respite from the Wolf’s Lair. However, with assassination attempts, the tasters are forced to live on the premises believed secure. Rosa never encounters Hitler, but glimpses his dog, Blondi. At the baronness’s party Rosa -the- taster becomes Rosa -the -love interest as she is noticed by one of Hitler’s obersturmfuhrer, Ziegler. Before the lock down, he begins to appear at Rosa’s window at night.
Besides the wartime examination of the tasters, At The Wolfs Table illuminates many themes that pertain to women, many feminist ones. It is a story of victimized women forced to comply during wartime to the orders of men. Rosa talks about missing love and her own body. For the baroness’s party, Ulla, another taster, had come to arrange Rosa’s hair and Rosa herself altered an old dress from Berlin’s nightlife in attempt to feel attractive. Her dalliance with Ziegler is part command performance, part investigation of self. She believes she ultimately has no choice, but also recognizes a desire within herself.
As a young bride before Karl’s departure, Rosa spent barely a year with her husband, dreaming of children, a life of normalcy, but of course, the extremes of war disrupts lives and hopes. In Gross- Partsch, tormented by his absence, she writes to Gregor everyday,” a diary of me missing him.”
The other women in her group also cope with their stilted loveless lives and their used but de- sexualized bodies. One of the tasters, married with two young children, becomes pregnant by a young farm hand , and Elfreide , another of the inmates, is able to procure a clandestine abortion for her in the woods.And another of the young women, Leni with a blotchy complexion dreams of her first love experience, but naively allows herself to be courted and betrayed by a soldier. She blames herself, disclaiming the admittance of rape. Elfreide speaks up, refusing to allow the outrage to pass. Rosa briefly in a position of power demands Ziegler provide protection for her, but Rosa too is betrayed when the woman disappears, likely sent off to a camp. Yet the Rosa- Ziegler liaison is complicated as he does insist on finding safe passage for her on Goebbels’s train once the war appears lost. She had told herself, “ But at night , Gregor( her husband) disappeared because the world itself disappeared and life began and ended in the trajectory of the connecting of Ziegler and me.” Cold comfort and rationalization for her nagging submission to Ziegler’s advances and withdrawals.
Rosa’s escape back to Berlin on the train, her discovery among the luggage and simple meal with a young family, the crooning of a lullaby and simple kiss to their baby juxtaposes the chaotic inhuman cattle cars that drove the precious human cargo of unfortunate targeted Jews to camps. Without mentioning that final destination, it is strongly evoked in the gently contrasted paragraphs. I doubt any Jew could read the section without a gasp of sorrow for those lost in the persecution.
As well, the theme of eating that should be pleasurable becomes a main obsession in the book. As readers we think of bulimics and anorexics who cannot tolerate or vomit their meals. Forever, women have considered their bodies too fat, too thin, playing with, balancing their diets.From skeletal Twiggys to curvaceously plump Sophia Lorens, the size of hips, busts, waists, legs and butts( whether to enlarge like the Kardashian’s or not) are the fodder of magazines and the cause of self doubt plaguing women forever. One of the tasters papers her room with images of stars, fantasizing about the perfect looks of a German actress. The women are all stand ins for Little Red Riding Hoods, guessing who or what ( food) will destroy and devour them, helpless? And will they all be blaming themselves or others for bad choices, too tight clothing, wrong moves, uncertain paths, neglecting the advice of those older and wiser.
Rosa aware of this strange life she is leading writes, “ The ability to adapt is human beings greatest resource, but the more I adapted, the less human I felt.” In a wash of contradictions and consumed by guilt, she admits her personal punishment was not poison, or death but life: as she had persisted in living by ingesting food, engaging in a romantic tryst with the enemy and seeking escape back to Berlin.In all of these situations, Rosa cannot rejoice or even forgive herself, as women often refuse to do, for there is shame, guilt, the burden of surviving when so many others succumbed.
At The Wolf’s Table raises many complicated and complex issues. In real life, Margaret Wolk’s leaving Wolfsschanze and return to Berlin was not the end of her story. Her treatment by the Russians was a nightmare. It is not surprising that only towards the end of her life did she reveal the horrors. As Jews who have continued on with our own memories, I think we can empathize, once more sadly aware of lives lost and destroyed – even those who were not Jewish.