“Secrets and Shadows” by Roberta Stilman— Thinking Back, Facing Trauma

Stilman, Roberta. “Secrets and Shadows”, Campden Hill, 2018.

Thinking Back, Facing Trauma

Amos Lassen

Paul Bertram (Berger) was a child in Berlin at the time of World War II and in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, he was filled with memories of what it was like to be a Jewish child there. He and his family managed to escape and went first to Sweden and then to America. Paul decided that he wanted to visit Berlin and invited Eve, his ex-wife to join him. They had a good marriage for 23 years and had three kids before Paul decided to be unfaithful.

Paul was a very charming and talented guy who was successful at everything that he did except liking himself. He hoped to be able to deal with that while in Berlin. Paul’s family had lived in Berlin for generations and they were well-respected and successful jewelers. Like so many other good German Jews, they thought that the Hitler regime was a phase and would pass but we all know now that this was not the case. The Bergers had been helped by Paul’s grandfather’s chief jewelry designer, Hjalmar Friedmann who was not Jewish. He moved his family into the Berger home so that the Nazis would not think that the house had Jews living there. They actually take over the house while the Bergers hide in the attic. Paul suffered traumas because of what his family had to endure and the reason he wanted to go back to Berlin was a chance to face them head-on.

The wounds that Paul faced are difficult to deal with and undoubtedly influenced his relationship with his wife. Some may find the book to be slow moving until they realize that this is deliberate so that we can better understand Paul and his relationship with his wife.

“Secrets and Shadows” looks at the themes of marriage, trauma and forgiveness but it does in uniquely by allowing the reader to see through Paul’s eyes as he relives his younger days in Germany. We watch as appeared as a good and solid marriage goes bad and then later see what caused that to happen. Then after being apart for five years, Paul invites his ex-wife to go to Berlin with him. It was his hopes that by facing the demons in the place of his youth that he would better understand the mistakes he made in his marriage to Eve. Here we have a case of looking at the past as a way to deal with the future.

The novel moves from past to present and back again and Stilman’s gorgeous pose is filled with details. Paul and Eve have had a problematic relationship, and because their characters are so well developed we feel we get to know them. I found this to be a well-realized novel that played on my emotions. We gain quite a sense of history in a different approach to the period before World War II and we see how trauma can affect someone his entire life if he does not deal with it or face it.

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