First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
It is early fall 1939. The place is a coastal town in Germany, near Poland. Friends from university have dramatically dissimilar reactions to the events thrust upon them by the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany. The book’s protagonist is a history professor, family man and member of the Gestapo who is initially proud of Germany’s early battle successes. His friend from university days is a Jew who loses her job under the Nazis, and with her husband, works to secretly help Jews escape Germany. When their paths cross, their earlier friendship and moral ideals are tested.
Historically accurate, author Jim Shipman has complete command of the facts and provides the reader with a compelling account of the events as they transpire. His earlier works, Constantinople, Going Home, and It is Well easily put the reader in a particular time and place, allowing us to contemplate our own emotional response to events as they unfold. You really feel like you are there, witnessing history in your mind’s eye.
Able to convey the horror of the Nazi regime without defaulting to Auschwitz – what it meant to be a Jew, observant or not, in every day Germany in 1939 – we find ourselves in the shoes of these characters. One feels revolted and resolves to ensure this kind of power does not visit the earth again.
Shipman has mastered the art of suspense. As I read A Bitter Rain I thought of Alfred Hitchcock. The work courageously creates as main character a solider in the Waffen Schultzstaffel, or SS, the Nazi party’s own military arm, an unwilling participant in atrocities, conduct he ultimately rejects. I say “courageously” because it is far easier to write heroic novels about allied soldiers, painting all Germans as Nazis. Here we are handed a character who has the same values as we do, born in the wrong place and time.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist.
The battle scenes are compelling, and unlike so many accounts which gloss over the sense of what battle is like by simply referencing familiar names of weapons, Shipman relates the sound and fury of the conflict with detail. The reader hears the siren affixed to the port wing of the Stuka dive bombers, added purely to generate terror during its attack, which ends with the release of the bomb and the aircraft pulling out of its dive, terminating the scream of the siren at the same time as the bomb explodes.
The quality of the Polish cavalry, the best in the world at that time, is not missed in this account, yet it’s hopeless effort against the modern blitzkrieg tactic reminds one of battles in the author’s earlier Civil War novel, Going Home, or perhaps the scene described by fellow traveler-in-spirit, Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
A Bitter Rain focuses on the compromises one must make to survive under such a regime, or the severe consequences when one does not. Entire world views, moral codes, cultures, are swept aside in a horrid, horrifying experience we have read about in sterile history books but cannot imagine living ourselves.
Shipman conveys the story of the Jews caught in Germany at the time the war starts, living in grinding fear and captivity, the luckiest of them in sanctuary homes, the worst off sent to concentration camps where life is remarkably harsh and cheap.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
All in all, we are wise to read these accounts in our current time, where peace seems optional. Rather than the kinder, gentler America World War II veteran President George H.W. Bush once proposed, we now find ourselves contemplating a demanding, nativist, harsher America to assuage the national mood, our good nature being taken advantage of by, well, everyone. Shipman’s description of what it means to live under an intolerant regime is worth the read to it’s thrilling end. The author’s end notes reference that Germany in the 1930’s was among the most advanced of civilizations, intellectually and culturally much like America is today. Finishing this book, we can put it down and tell ourselves, “This couldn’t happen here.” Or can we? This book is a timely read.
(Verse by Martin Niemoller, clergyman, held in a concentration camp for seven years by the Nazi regime for speaking out.)