Reviews of Shadows of Berlin by David Gillham

Shadows of Berlin

A Novel

by David R. Gillham

Shadows of Berlin by David R. Gillham X
Shadows of Berlin by David R. Gillham
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 416 pages

    Jan 2023, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

A captivating novel of a Berlin girl on the run from the guilt of her past and the boy from Brooklyn who loves her.

1955 in New York City: the city of instant coffee, bagels at Katz's Deli, new-fangled TVs. But in the Perlman's walk-up in Chelsea, the past is as close as the present. Rachel came to Manhattan in a wave of displaced Jews who managed to survive the horrors of war. Her Uncle Fritz fleeing with her, Rachel hoped to find freedom from her pain in New York and in the arms of her new American husband, Aaron.

But this child of Berlin and daughter of an artist cannot seem to outrun her guilt in the role of American housewife, not until she can shed the ghosts of her past. And when Uncle Fritz discovers, in a dreary midtown pawn shop, the most shocking portrait that her mother had ever painted, Rachel's memories begin to terrorize her, forcing her to face the choices she made to stay alive―choices that might be her undoing.

From the cafes of war-torn Germany to the frantic drumbeat of 1950s Manhattan, Shadows of Berlin dramatically explores survival, redemption and the way we learn to love and forgive across impossible divides.

All Is Perfect

She imagines the final moments as white, pure white, as the plane plunges through the blizzard. The snow obscures the cockpit glass until the mountain emerges in a split second of clarity, the cliff face surging forward in the instant before impact.

Her shrink tilts his head. Slightly. "Why only plane crashes?" he wonders. "Why not floods or train wrecks or any number of other disasters?"

She recalls the headline of the story that she had carefully scissored from the newspaper that morning with her sewing shears. JET HITS MOUNTAIN IN SNOW SQUALL. Below the headline, a photo of the wreckage revealed the result. A twisted, torn fuselage in pieces. Chunks of smoking steel.

"I think the crash of an airplane is different," says Rachel.

Dr. Solomon frowns reflectively. An arm and a leg he's being paid, so it's his job to ferret out this young woman's madness, isn't it? Just as it's her job to be just mad enough to be cured. "Different?"

"Because they are so sudden," ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Aaron is extremely impatient for children. Why is Rachel reluctant to start a family? Does Aaron respect her reasoning?
  2. Rachel's uncle, Feter Fritz, is an important character in Rachel's life. Yet he is often manipulative and self-serving in his behavior toward her. Why do you think she puts up with him and continues to go out of her way to maintain his affections?
  3. In many ways, Rachel resists thinking of herself as traumatized. What prevents her from feeling "worthy" of her struggles with mental health?
  4. Characterize the Red Angel. Did your opinion of Angelika change as you learned more of her story? In Rachel's position, would you have accepted her help in New York City ten years after the end of the war?
  5. What does Aaron expect Rachel ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about Shadows of Berlin.
You can see the full discussion here.

"Don't embarrass yourself with Yiddish in front of other Jews. What do you think, this is the Ukraine?" What do you think Rachel's parents meant?
Perhaps they thought of the Ukraine as low brow and wouldn't want to behave and speak like a Ukrainian? Its just a guess, another way I think the book could have been more explicit in their meaning. - beckys

Aaron is extremely impatient for children. Why do you think this is? Why is Rachel reluctant to start a family? 
I think it is very natural for Aaron to want children after 7 years of marriage. He wants to please his family and fulfill his need for a child. I don't think the reasons for not wanting a family were discussed back in this time period. ... - beckys

Angelika states, "[T]he world resents the unhappy but indulges those who know how to take joy from their surroundings." What do you think she means? Do you agree?
As others say, unhappiness is a burden that takes from the life one is living. Disassociation or other means of taking oneself out of the reality can sometimes be a successful survival tool. - skagitgrits

Angelika tells Rachel that she "make[s] her [so-called-crime] such a terrible transgression that it stops you from living. You hide behind it, hide from life." Do you believe this is true? 
It is hard for me to say she is hiding behind her trauma... I believe that is what is keeping her from enjoying a full life with her husband, but I don't believe it is of her own doing. Trauma can effect people so severely... I don't ... - beckys

Did your opinion of Angelika change as you learned more of her story? Why do you suppose she was so determined to take Rachel under her wing? In Rachel’s position, would you have accepted her help?
No, she was an awful person from beginning to end. Even in the end when she contacted Rachel she more or less told her she wasn't afraid of Rachel turning her in because she'd take her down as well. She saved Rachel to get back at Rachel&#... - sharalynnep

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BookBrowse Review


Gillham expertly unfolds this tale in increments, keeping his audience spellbound until Rachel's full history is laid bare. Although the third-person account is told entirely from Rachel's perspective, Aaron is illuminated through her observations of him, and the author's ability to imbue this character with so much nuance is remarkable. Shadows of Berlin is an excellent exploration of survivor's guilt, as well as a brilliant portrayal of a marriage reaching a breaking point. I highly recommend it for most audiences, particularly those interested in Jewish culture in the United States after WWII...continued

Full Review Members Only (672 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Shelf Awareness
Shadows of Berlin and its details of Jewish persecution balance the tragedy of the Holocaust with glimpses of hope and redemption, the latter bringing Rachel closer to healing and peace.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A tribute to resilience and starting over. This is heart-wrenching and memorable.

Echoes of Sophie's Choice reverberate throughout Gillham's novel...a crisply detailed portrait of postwar New York.

Author Blurb Charles Belfoure, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Architect
David Gillham has written a deeply moving story about an aspect of the Holocaust that few people know about - how thousands of survivors came to New York City to restart their lives and escape demons from the past. But some have a hard time dealing with the guilt, shame, and anger caused by the terrible experience. Gillham paints a vivid picture of their life in post-war New York while imaginatively linking it to their ordeal in wartime Berlin.

Author Blurb Erika Robuck, national bestselling author of The Invisible Woman
In a poignant novel saturated in the rich hues of time, place, and art comes the unforgettable story of Rachel Perlman―a child of war, grown in body but held captive in soul by a past of abuse, guilt, and unimaginable trauma. Yet even from the ruinous embers of war, Gillham skillfully, tenderly allows Rachel to rise, revealing the life-affirming truth that we may always begin again, no matter where we are. Though timeless, Shadows of Berlin is novel for our time because it provides what we desperately need all the time: Hope.

Author Blurb Jennifer Rosner, author of The Yellow Bird Sings
A powerful, heartrending story of guilt and forgiveness, loss and love, war's long shadow over the living and our memories of the dead. With exquisite poignancy, Gillham asks what it means to survive profound trauma and find hope in a broken world.

Author Blurb Leah Weiss, bestselling author of If The Creek Don't Rise and All the Little Hopes
Straddling the ragged line between guilt and tender mercy, Shadows of Berlin is Gillham at his best, writing compelling, evocative history. He is a master wordsmith who deftly pulls us down winding corridors riddled with broken spirits and haunting ghosts on a quest for absolution. An unspeakable past unspools in spits and sputters. Gillham nimbly sews the scraps together. The result is a riveting story that is unputdownable.

Author Blurb Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Woman with the Blue Star
I have been a fan of David Gillham's work since City of Women and his latest, Shadows of Berlin, is his best yet. The story of Rachel, a Holocaust survivor, who seeks to start a new life in New York City with her American-born husband, Aaron, but cannot outrun the secrets of her past and what she did to survive, is haunting and enigmatic. Gillham writes about both the war and its aftermath with a sure hand, placing readers in the shoes of his memorable characters and compelling them to ask what they would have done. Reminding us that history is made up of infinite individual choices, Shadows of Berlin is a masterful story of survival and redemption.

Reader Reviews

Susan Roberts

Fantastic Book
The novel starts in 1955 in New York City where Rachel lives with her husband Aaron. Rachel has only been in the United States for several years after entering the country from Germany as a displaced person with her uncle, her only family left alive ...   Read More
Tired Bookreader

Another Chapter
Will we ever know what really happened during the holocaust? Really know? Recently, several books have been published to shine light on another aspect of the fear and horror, and decisions that had to be made in order to stay alive. These ...   Read More
Dorinne Dobson

Shadows of Berlin
This is a novel of World War II. The Jewish protagonist, Rachel Perlman, was a child during the war, fleeing or hiding with her mother and her Uncle Fritz. Rachel finally escapes Germany with her Uncle Fritz and arrives in New York City. There she ...   Read More
Cindy R

Survivor's guilt
Rachel survives WWII in Berlin hiding with her painter, mother as an U-boat girl, but once she arrives in New York City, surviving doesn't mean she's left the horrors of war behind. Her mother doesn't survive, but in Berlin Rachel finds herself under...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

"Degenerate Art" in Nazi Germany

Black and white photograph featuring art confiscated by the Nazis including a Van Gogh self-portraitIn David R. Gillham's Shadows of Berlin, the protagonist's mother was a modern artist whose work was banned by the Hitler Regime.

Adolf Hitler didn't originally intend to have a career in politics, planning instead to be a professional artist. In 1907 at the age of 18, he applied to Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts, but was rejected — twice. Still, he was able to make a reliable living selling his paintings to tourists before leaving for Munich in 1913, where he worked on commission for several wealthy patrons. The dismissal of his work by Austria's artistic elite struck a nerve, though, and their refusal to take his paintings seriously had consequences the art world never could have foreseen.

Over the ensuing decades, Hitler came...

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