by Mechtild Borrmann; translated by Aubrey Botsford
As Robert Lubisch readies his late father’s villa for sale, he finds a photograph and some World War II era documents hidden in a cigar box in his father’s desk.
The photograph is of a young woman he has never seen before. The documents consist of an SS identity card signed by Wilhelm Peters, an unnamed safe conduct pass and discharge papers for his father, Friedhelm Lubish.
His push to find out why his father kept those documents cracks opens secrets held more than 40 years.
In author Mechtild Borrmann’s expert hands, the story alternates between Lubisch’s present day search for answers and the lives and fates of six friends living in northeastern Germany near the border with Holland from 1939 until they intersect with Lubisch’s search.
Lubisch remembers his father confessing to deserting from an armored division in the lower Rhine as a big Allied offensive begins and his two closest comrades die within minutes of each other. As he ran, he stopped to steal a dead man’s coat and tunic — and with them his documents. Friedhelm Lubisch claims the dead man was SS Squad Leader Wilhelm Peters. Using his identity, Friedhelm managed to get to the Ruhr, hoping to get home to Breslau. Learning that the Russians had taken over Breslau, Friedhelm gets rid of the coat and tunic and is taken prisoner under his own name. He was held until 1948 and soon after learned that his family had died in Breslau.
But Robert’s father had never shown him the photo of the woman. Was she someone special to Friedhelm? Or the girl friend or wife of Peters? The only clue are the printed words “Photo Studio Heuer, Kranenburg.”
When a conference takes Lubisch to Nijmegen, The Netherlands, he decides to visit neighboring Kranenburg, Germany. He learns the studio no longer exists but is directed to where its now elderly owner lives. Norbert Heuer identifies the photo as one he took and the woman was Therese Pohl, wife of Wilhelm Peters who “went missing. He’s been missing ever since,” Heuer tells him.
Now even more curious that Peters didn’t die in the war, Lubisch decides to visit the cottage on the Höver farm where Therese Pohl Peters was last known to have lived. The cottage is now leased by Rita Alber, a freelance journalist, who is just as intrigued as Lubisch about the woman in the photograph. She volunteers to do a local records research.
At this point, Borrmann turns back in time to the summer of 1939 and six school chums: three girls and three boys. Nearing adulthood in a world verging on war, romantic attractions crisscross the group. Alwine Kalder is drawn to Wilhelm Peters. Wilhelm is drawn to Therese Pohl. Hanna Höver has her eye on Jacob Kalder. Jacob and Leonard Kramer are best friends.
As the six take a rest from haying, talk turns to politics. Alwine and Leonard jump in to stop the debate. Leonard, noting that this might be their last summer together, suggests “that we promise, here and now, never to lose sight of one another, and always to be there for the others, as we have been for the last few years.”
But events lead to losses, jealousies, bitterness and betrayals. The guilt-silenced secrets fester for decades.
Borrmann’s characters are distinct and natural. They stay true to themselves even as they evolve with the times and age. Borrmann’s beautiful descriptions bring scenes to life. Her pacing — with a contemporary storyline that takes place mostly over the course of less than a week and a historical storyline that takes place over a dozen years — is pitch perfect. Neither the contemporary storyline nor the historical one are sacrificed. This is a tight, suspenseful plot that leaves no person or situation dangling at the end.
The Author: Mechtild Borrmann
Born in 1960, Borrmann lives in Bielefeld, Germany. The German version of Silence (Wer das Schweigen bricht) won the 2012 Deutscher Krimi Prize for best crime novel and marks her English debut.
She draws from her childhood experiences in the lower Rhine region of Germany for the settings of her crime stories. She has trained as a Gestalt therapist and a dance and theater educator. She has worked in a drug counseling center and with epileptic children.
In addition to Silence, she has written The Violinist (2012), Right In the City (2009), Tomorrow is the Day After Yesterday (2007) and When the Heart Beats in My Head (2006).