Adolf Hitler was afraid of being poisoned. Even in his heavily guarded headquarters, the Wolfsschanze (‘the Wolf’s Lair’), in East Prussia (now part of Poland) he feared that the British would poison him. In this novel, inspired by Margot Woelk’s account of her time as one of Hitler’s food tasters, Ms Postorino imagines the experiences of the women who were food tasters.
Rosa Sauer, our narrator in this novel, is one of ten women from the nearby village of Gross-Partsch conscripted to act as one of the food tastes. The women were driven to the Wolfsschanze twice each day, were made to eat the vegetarian meals prepared for Hitler. They then had to wait for an hour under guard, to ensure that the Führer’s food was safe for him to eat. And while sampling Hitler’s food had some advantages: many Germans were contending with food shortages; how could the women relax knowing that each meal could be their last?
‘We had no alternative—that was our alibi. I was responsible only for the food I ingested. A harmless gesture, eating.’
Rosa is something of an outsider in this group. Her mother was killed in a bombing raid in Berlin. She is staying with her parents-in-law in Gross-Partsch. Her husband, Gregor, is fighting at the front. Rosa’s life is in turmoil when she is conscripted as a food taster and Gregor is reported missing in action.
Rosa is in limbo. She does not know whether her husband is alive, she does not know whether each meal will be her last. She travels to Wolfsschanze on a bus each morning, and then home to help her mother-in-law with domestic chores. Gradually she becomes acquainted with the other women conscripted as food tasters, but there is little prospect of friendship here. The atmosphere is tense: the tension compounded by mutual distrust, the need to work together and the indifference or cruelty of the SS officers.
The novel explores several difficult issues: should Rosa (and the other women) feel guilty about surviving? Do they really have any choice but to co-operate? Are they victims or collaborators? And, in thinking about possible answers to those questions, a reader must wonder exactly what they might do in the same circumstances.
I found this novel unsettling. There are no simple answers to these questions. And, returning to Margot Woelk, I was not surprised to learn that she did not speak of her experiences until she was past her 95th birthday.