The Women at Hitler's Table

Rosella Postorino

HarperCollins, £12.99

Review by Trevor Royle

Sometimes fiction can be as effective as non-fiction in relating historical events. Tolstoy’s War and Peace with its vivid descriptions of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 is a case in point, while Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is as good a guide as any to the fighting on the Western Front in the First World War.

Neither novel supplants the reality of war but rather creates an imagined world which enhances our understanding of our troubled past.

As does this one. It had long been suspected that Adolf Hitler followed the well-attested practice of employing food tasters to sample his meals in case they had been poisoned by the enemy. So paranoid did he become that 15 young women were rounded up and forced to test his food at the Wolf’s Lair, the heavily guarded command post in East Prussia, now part of Poland, where the Fuhrer spent much of his time in the final years of the conflict. Each bite could have been their last, but all the tasters survived and their story was finally told in 2013 when the sole survivor, Margot Woelk, broke cover to spill the beans (so to speak).

At this point a young Italian novelist and journalist called Rosella Postorino came on the scene and vowed to record the story of these innocent dupes who served Hitler without ever seeing him. In the way of these things Woelk died before she could be interviewed and the result is this novel, a superb retelling of a hideous tale. The central character is Rosa Sauer, a young Berliner living with her in-laws while her husband is missing on the Eastern Front. Her experiences clearly mirror those endured by Woelk and her fellow tasters.

But there is more to the story than the fear of being one bite from death. Rosa is an outsider, a city girl living in a close-knit rural community and she is forced to fight for acceptance in a world where suspicion reigns and terror is a constant companion.

The women are also aware that they are in an invidious position, being not only the chosen few living a pampered life, but also Hitler’s first line of defence against a possible poisoner and thus in the claustrophobic and distrustful world of the Wolf’s Lair they are utterly expendable.

To make matters worse – if that were possible – Rosa embarks on an emotionless sexual relationship with a young SS officer, thereby compounding her guilt and adding to her existing fears. In an unexpected denouement, the final part of the narrative discloses that Rosa has survived the war but her marriage has failed leaving her incapable of ever talking about her time in Hitler’s service.

None of this would fit into a regular historical narrative but in using fiction to recreate the doom and gloom of life in East Prussia, Postorino has done her homework. The result is an accurate evocation of Hitler’s increasingly self-obsessed existence in the fastness of the forests. Real-life people also make their exits and entrances, notably Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, one of the leaders of a doomed assassination plot to kill Hitler in July 1944, an attempt witnessed by the food-tasters and a reminder that their work was rooted in harsh reality.

Other contemporary references add to the sense of time and place, such as Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marleen and the revelation that one of the girls, Elfrieda, has Jewish blood and rapidly “disappears”.

But these are side issues. The thrust of this unputdownable novel is the story of Rosa and her companions, who are caught on the wrong side of history occupying what Primo Levi called “the grey zone”, where survival is the only objective and achieved through whatever means possible. Postorino’s novel has been expertly translated from the Italian by Leha Janeczko and it makes a worthy addition to the historiography of the Second World War.