Eva's Cousin by Sibylle KnaussEva's Cousin by Sibylle Knauss

Eva's Cousin

bySibylle Knauss

Paperback | December 2, 2003

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Berchtesgaden, Germany, is a beautiful place, set among the gentle meadow-clad hills rising to the sheer heights of bare Alpine peaks. It is here where an elderly woman arrives and recollects her past—and her peripheral role in a chapter of world history. She walks along a beaten path, which has come into being because so many tourists have ventured this way . . . to see something that exists only in her memory.

In the summer of 1944, twenty-year-old Marlene is thrilled when her older, more glamorous cousin, Eva Braun, Adolph Hitler’s mistress, invites her to come to the Fuhrer’s Bavarian mountain retreat. Against her father’s wishes, Marlene accepts, and immediately sets forth to Berghof.

There, while Hitler is away desperately trying to turn the tides of war, Marlene finds herself in a strange paradise, a world of opulence and imminent danger, of freedom and surveillance. The two women sneak off and skinny-dip in a nearby-lake, watch films in the Fuhrer’s private cinema, and flirt with the SS officers at the dinner table—one of whom will become Marlene’s first lover.

Initially delighted by Eva’s attentions, Marlene later tries to understand the elusive connection between her cousin and the man she loves.

In quiet defiance, she begins to commit her own acts of subversion, which include listening to BBC radio broadcasts, forbidden by the Fuhrer. But a clandestine mission of mercy will force her to question her allegiance to both her cousin and her country—and to face the chilling reality that exists outside her sheltered world.

Based on the true experiences of Eva Braun’s cousin, Gertrude Weisker, who has shared her memories with Sibylle Knauss after more than fifty years of silence, Eva’s Cousin is a novel that illuminates the banality of the domestic face of evil. It casts a special light on the profound questions of innocence and complicity that still haunt much of the world today.
Sibylle Knauss, born in 1944, is the author of eight novels. She is professor of dramaturgy and scriptwriting at the Baden-Württemberg Academy of Film. This is her first book to be translated into English. She lives near Stuttgart in Germany.

interview with the author

Why did Gertrude Weisker decide to tell you her story, after fifty years of telling no one?

This is a question she could answer better than me. I can only guess. She read an interview with me in the German magazine “Der Spiegel,” in which I said I would like to write something about Eva Braun. She called me, saying “I could tell you a lot about her, I’m her cousin”. We met, and I think she felt she could trust me. Maybe she also felt that the time had come to break her silence about those long ago Nazi days. The situation has changed indeed in Germany. Strange to say, old people now begin to talk about their memories of before 1945, and the media seem interested, there are a lot of TV shows and books about World War II, more than ever before. Those who have memories of those times are aging nowadays and soon will be gone.

What did you learn about the nature of confession when she told you her story? Why do people confess to others?

Our bad memories are as much a part of our lives as the good ones are, as is the evil that we became a part of. Denying it means to deny a part of yourself. Perhaps growing older and approaching the end of life increases the longing to feel complete, to look back on a complete biography. I think this is how Gertrude Weisker must have felt, when she told me about her stay at Hitler’s home in 1944.

As she told you her story, you came to occupy a curious position, as witness, confessor, accomplice, and writer. Did moral judgment on your part ever enter into this position? If so, how did you deal with your judgments through these various roles you played?

It was a curious position. But I did not feel like a confessor or an accomplice. I only felt like a writer, on the track of a fascinating story. And a writer never is interested in moral judgment, only in coming close to understanding human acts which are hard to understand. Besides, I remember being a twenty year old girl and how stupid I was and politically unsuspecting. I do not expect a young woman in 1944 to be more judicious.

Why did you decide to write a novel instead of a biography? Was this a decision you reached with Gertrude Weisker, or did she tell you her story and leave it up to you to decide how it would be recorded?

I never thought about writing anything but a novel. First, I am a novelist and deeply convinced that writing fiction is a way to get to a truth that can never be found at the surface of so-called reality. Second, what Gertrude told me were memories from a strictly personal point of view. A lot of privacy, a lot of intimacy, atmosphere, details. No matters of great historical concern. Those all are well-known. This was the subject of a narrative: two young ladies in Hitler’s living room, waiting for him to call. Gertrude knew from the beginning that I was going to write a novel, and she agreed.

In your dedication, you write, “This is as true as the facts on which it is based–and as fictional as any novel.” What does that mean? Where do fiction and fact converge, and where do they split apart? Does the writer’s responsibility to his/her audience change depending on whether or not he/she is writing fiction or non-fiction?

If you write a novel, you mix up fiction and reality to create something new, which neither the reader nor the author can separate into parts distinguished by right or wrong, truth or fantasy. The novel has its own truth. When a reader thinks, “Yes. That’s what she is acting like. That’s what she feels like,”–that reader has got it. When I read the New York Times review of Eva’s Cousin, and they called it “a novel that feels like the truth,” it meant so much to me. It meant that somebody had read it and sensed the fictional truth, although knowing that facts may have been different. For example, Gertrude Weisker did not save the life of a Ukrainian laborer. But I have been told the story of this boy by someone else, who experienced the tortures of being captured and brought as a slave laborer to Germany, though not to Obersalzberg. Besides, it is of no use for readers to know such things. All that counts is the fictional truth: Feeling what it feels like for someone who goes through such experiences.

Marlene’s fear of being caught–both while at the Berchtesgaden and for the rest of her life after the war–pulses at the heart of your novel. In a way, she defines herself in opposition to the person who may, one day, discover the truth. How, then, does the reader of the novel relate to Marlene’s silence? What role does the reader play in her confession, and what is the writer’s contribution to shaping that role?

You know, Marlene in the book is a fictional person. Of course she borrows some features and characteristics from my informant and shares details of her biography. But also, as any novelist does, I gave her traits of my own and of some other people. This fictional arrangement includes the idea of the secret confession of what she had experienced as a close relative of Eva Braun. The more secret and private confessions are, the more they are meant to be read by many readers. That is one of the games authors and readers are used to playing with each other.

Whose stories constitute history? Hitler’s story, of power and military command and ultimate defeat, or Gertrude’s story, the life of a young German woman during dark times? Or is history some combination of both types?

Of course it is. And that is why there is no history without literature. Historiography is only one part of the historical tradition. How much do we know about Nazi times when we know everything about Hitler’s crimes or the progress of World War II? I want to know how they dressed and danced and had love affairs and what it felt like to be in a bunker during bomb attacks, as well as what it felt like to miss people in the neighborhood who happened to be Jews. (We always were so hungry. We only cared about what we would eat next, my mother used to say.)

By writing Eva’s Cousin, you chose to tackle serious subject matter that is still, in many ways, taboo, and, at the least, deeply political. Can you imagine any Germans reacting negatively to your depictions of this pocket of Germany during the War? How aware were you of such possible reactions while you were writing the novel, and was this a very different sort of experience from writing your previous novels?

I always tried to investigate unknown territories of consciousness while writing my books. But this was a special thing. I knew I would have to tackle taboos, writing about the perpetrators of Nazi crimes instead of the victims and by saying “we,” “we Nazis.” You know, there are many books in post war German literature dealing with the subject of Nazi crimes, but they never say “we,” they say “them,” that those who did it were not aware of their crimes. But, you see, my parents happened to be Nazis, just as nearly everybody was, so why not say “we Nazis” when dealing with our past and when trying to tell one of the millions of stories that remain untold? No, there were no negative reactions to the book in Germany. Most readers liked it, and many of them liked it very much. But some did not know exactly if they were allowed to like it. You understand? We Germans are still very cautious, when talking about those times. I am not.

Marlene’s life at Berchtesgaden evokes difficult questions of complicity, guilt, naïveté and forgiveness. Do you see her story as unique, or do you see her story as emblematic of Germany as a whole during the War? Please explain your reasons.

When Marlene came to visit her cousin Eva at Berchtesgaden, she felt like an extraordinary person, keen on visiting Hitler’s home, pleased by the attention of the servants, proud to be one of the happy few of Nazi society to be admitted to the center of Nazi power, which was also the center of Nazi elegance, Nazi lifestyle, the very heart of it. Meanwhile, everywhere else, the world was perishing. She was excited enough to be ashamed of it for the rest of her life. She did not commit any crime herself, but had been so eager to be part of a criminal world. Thus her story is unique and emblematic as well. Most of the Germans were eager to participate in the crimes of century. I do not think it was the feeling of guilt that closed their mouths for such a long time afterwards, but the feeling of shame. Not everybody succeeded in approaching the heart of Nazism as close as Marlene did. But they all had been too close to it.

What sort of research did you to write this novel, in addition to listening to and recording Ms. Weisker’s stories?

Of course I did much research for the book. Especially on bomb attacks on German cities. I had no experience of my own to help me come to terms with it (I was born in 1944). And there must be something of your own experience in everything you write. So I got to read diaries of those years and tried to talk to people who are older than I am. Sometimes doing research is like opening a window to the past. I did not always like what I saw. Of course I have read the great Hitler biographers (Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw). I have had enough of it for the rest of my life.

How might a German audience’s reaction to your book be different from an American audience’s reaction, and how might they be similar? When you were writing it, did you have a particular audience in mind? This is your first book translated into English–did this come as a surprise to you? Why or why not?

I always have a special audience in mind: people who are like me, people who love a good story and like to forget the rest of the world while reading it, keen to extend their scopes of human understanding. No matter if they are German or American or whatever. Having my book translated into English (as well as many other languages) was such a wonderful experience for me. It does not happen to many German writers. When I got the translation, which is a really good one by Anthea Bell, I nearly was moved to tears. Can you imagine that? It was like looking into a mirror for the first time and understanding: That is me. I deeply love and admire many works of English and American literature. But this was my own. And by reading it, I thought: this is exactly how I would write if I wrote in English. She even kept the rhythm of my prose.

In talking to Ms. Weisker and then in writing this book, did you learn anything new about the nature of memory, and how memory serves an individual in either assuaging fear and guilt or in haunting one with fear and guilt? How does memory create self-perceptions, and how does this process either get disrupted or reinforced by the pressures of history itself?

Is that not the reason why we need books, need to be told stories, in order to not be haunted with fear and guilt? You can’t stay alone with your memories. You must share them. You must learn what you have lived through, and you must tell others. We Germans lived with too many untold stories for too long. Our self-perception thus remained incomplete. Because the past is always part of the present. We must learn to say “we”, not “them”. It was “us” who did it. And writers are the ones to try to find a language for painful experiences of guilt and shame and complicity. It is high time. I tried. And let’s not forget Gertrude Weisker--she tried by telling me.

As a writer, do you believe that there are some histories which will always be written about? Will there ever come a day when we are done writing about World War II, for example, or are there some events from history whose trauma must always be re-explored, and if so, why?

Who knows? You need a Shakespeare to come to terms with it. One thing you can take for certain: He would have loved the material. Hitler, Göring, Goebbels and all the others…great villains on a Shakespeare scene. Yes, I think, in a certain uneasy way, they are immortal. They will always be material, not just for Germans, but for writers at any time. It is wise to be aware of the dark side of human potentiality.

Marlene’s story is an extreme example of how one person’s life can become intricately tied up with world-shaping events. How much responsibility do any of us as individuals have in the creation of history? Where does one’s own life bleed into the events of the day?

Everywhere, every time. The problem is that we are not aware of it as it is happening, but only when it is done. Then, sometimes, we wake up like from a dream. Sometimes nearly sixty years later (which is too late). And it is the duty and great profession of writers (filmmakers, artists…) to point it out. I promise I keep to it. What can a person perceive of what will later be called history? The question lies at the center of all my books. Maybe it is a typical German point of view? It should be.
Title:Eva's CousinFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:352 pages, 8.22 × 5.46 × 0.74 inShipping dimensions:8.22 × 5.46 × 0.74 inPublished:December 2, 2003Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345449061

ISBN - 13:9780345449061


Read from the Book

chapter 1the trains were still running in the sum- mer of 1944. I even had a reservation, which proved to some degree superfluous, since the closer the train came to Munich the emptier it was. Not many people wanted to go into the cities at that time. They wanted to get out. As far away from the bombs as possible.But I wanted to go in. I knew very well that I was going to survive; at the age of twenty everyone is sure of surviving. It was a great promise, a promise made to me, a most-favored-person clause in the contract of life. Something told me that of any two possibilities, the better must always be intended for me. Sometimes I was quite surprised to have come into the world a girl, as if in that other world before birth there had been a version of myself who failed to pay attention just for a moment, and now had to get by as best she could with being born a woman.In fact, being born a woman was a considerably healthier prospect at the time. Of the twenty-two boys in my class who had taken the school-leaving exam with me a year ago, ten were already dead, and the litany of their names, a monotonous chant now running in time to the rhythm of the train passing over the sleepers, came into my mind of its own accord and almost unremittingly: Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-G�nther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . .I suppose they, too, had firmly believed themselves fundamentally invulnerable. Or would they have marched when the order came to march, would they have run when they were told to run—into the gunfire, into ambushes, into minefields? Wouldn’t they have dug themselves in like foxes, coming out again only when it was all over? Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-G�nther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . . Not one of them would have known the knack of dying.When the first bad news began to arrive, pages of death notices in the Jena newspaper inserted by parents describing their pain as “grief and pride,� only occasionally revealing the unutterable depths of misery that had afflicted them—“Our dear big boy,� they might say, or “Our only child, loved above all else,� and then a name that brought back to me all the remembered atmosphere of summer afternoons on the bathing beach or at dancing class—when such news came I had walked aimlessly through the woods for hours on end. The wind ruffled my hair, night came on. I wanted to be close to them, to feel what it’s like to be out of doors, without shelter, and with no chance of going home. I began to hear their voices whispering, as if they were in the middle of some old, familiar scouting game to be played only by the dead and those destined to die. I tried to imagine the moment when you assent to your fate. It must come only just before death, I thought. I intended to spend a night in the wood, freezing cold as my friends had been. But then I went home to bed after all.Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-G�nther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . . The staccato rattle of the train going over the railway sleepers was a hollow, ominous accompaniment to that chant. A distant, unreal corps of drummers. It seemed to grow louder as the journey went on, as if something unavoidable were approaching. It had accompanied them, too, on their way east.Ernst-G�nther was my boyfriend. When the news that he had fallen came I locked myself in my room to cry. But all I really felt was enormous anger to think that he had died before we ever really did it. I think most of those boys hadn’t done it yet. Max might have. Maybe Rudolf. Just possibly Waldemar. Ernst-G�nther? If he’d ever done it, it would certainly have been with me. It simply wasn’t fair to let them die before they really knew what it was like.I was sorry now that we hadn’t been engaged. If we’d been engaged I might have done it. I probably would have done it. I blamed myself for not being more in love with him. Now that he was dead it wouldn’t have matter if I’d pledged mad, undying love for him. We’d known each other so long. Since primary school. Perhaps it was because I’d really always imagined doing it for the first time with another man some day.Nonetheless, I still wanted to make Ernst-G�nther a present of myself somehow or other, so I went to see his parents and told them we’d been secretly engaged, we hadn’t told them only because we knew they thought we were too young, but later on we’d certainly have married and set up house together and all that.That made them both weep dreadfully, and I wept, too, much worse than when I heard the news that he had fallen. They didn’t want me to go, and begged me to call them Mother and Father, which was not easy for me. But they had no one left to call them that, and they even wanted me to move in with them, although they realized that was going too far. Instead, I promised to come and have supper with them once a week. And although that wasn’t so bad, and in fact it was very generous of them since they had no ration card for me and it meant I could save up my rations at home, my decision to go to Munich was made partly so that I could escape the consequences of my well-meant lie.I didn’t want to be a widow yet. I was full of curiosity about living men. I was twenty years old. Twenty at a time when the men were being sent away to die. If just one of them had been left alive after the war, I’d have wanted him for myself.It was May 1944 when Ernst-G�nther fell. I know that because of the cockchafer incident not long afterward. There were huge swarms of cockchafers that year. There have never been so many since. They’ve almost died out now anyway, and no one but us elderly folk can remember what it was like when they descended like a plague.It was during one of my grief-stricken wanderings, those long walks I took in memory of my dead school friends and in their honor. I was walking down an avenue of beech trees when all of a sudden I heard a strange whirring in the air. It was like an aircraft approaching to dive-bomb me. And then they descended on me in their thousands. They fell from the trees like rain. The street was covered with cockchafers. I couldn’t put my feet down anywhere without hearing them crunch underfoot. I walked over the corpses of countless cockchafers as their shiny brown chitinous shells cracked open. They bounced off my shoulders, they slipped down inside the neckline of my dress.But my hair was the worst. It was long, and I wore it pinned up in what we called the Gretchen style, a kind of wreath plaited around the forehead and the back of the neck. That was the fashion at the time. There was a suggestion of solstice bonfires about it, a suggestion of harvest festivals and Hitler Youth girls. It suited me. I never needed a perm. My hair is strong and quite curly to this day, and as resistant as the feet of the cockchafers that got caught in it. It was as if they had grown into my hair with their whirring and rustling and crackling. As if I were wearing an invisible fire on my head, and I could feel it constantly burning.At home they had to cut my hair off. There was no other way to get them out. Now I really did look like Gretchen, but in the last act of Faust, ready for her execution. A hairstyle of shame, my father called it, and I was indeed ashamed. Such a thing as shame existed in those days. Something somber, bad, secret, something that must never come to light. Defilement, racial impurity, and something else, too: One must not acknowledge or guess at its possibility, yet one feared it. This other thing lurked behind everything you saw and heard and knew, a shame so deep that no disgrace, no penance could ever atone for it.Sometimes we asked each other: What will happen if we lose the war?What would happen? They would come down on us like avengers; they would torture and kill us. They would enslave our unborn children and make them work in their mines. And God have mercy on you if you were a girl.So I was thankful to the soldiers for giving their lives for me. What would become of me if they didn’t? My life for the lives of Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-G�nther, Rudolf, Walter, Max? Not just my life, my honor. Was I worth it? And what exactly was my honor, also called innocence? What was I innocent of? Apart from the hairstyle I now wore, and there really was nothing I could do about that.She looks as if she’s been branded, said my father.I myself felt as if I’d been branded. As if I’d had my head shaved and been driven through the town so that everyone could see my shame, the way they did with women who slept with Jews or foreigners imported to do forced labor. Yet I hadn’t slept with anyone, even Ernst-G�nther. And now that he was dead that seemed remarkably unimportant.Of course my hair soon grew back. But when I arrived to stay with Eva in July, I still saw something in her eyes like mocking amusement at my inability to be as pretty as she was. I knew that, as she saw it, I’d never learn. She was wrong there, however.Eva was a good teacher of the art of outshining other women by showing yourself off to fashionable advantage, not so much to impress men—that’s not the point, that’s more of a desirable side effect—as to make other women wonder what they’re doing wrong when they set eyes on you. Oh, my dear, don’t you know that headscarves are worn over the forehead now? No one, but no one ties them under the chin anymore! She was always catching you out in ignorance of this kind, as if you belonged to a banned political party and still bore its visible signs and tokens about your person. Such women do exist. All efforts made by others to be fashionable are poor copies. These women sweep their followers along with them this way and that, in a factional struggle that passes entirely unnoticed by men, and my cousin Eva was one of them. She was one of them to the very last hour of her life, for which she made herself beautiful.Good heavens, child, what do you look like? she said when we saw each other again. Well, there’s a good hairdresser here. I think I’d better make you an appointment with him straightaway.But I am running ahead of myself.When the train drew into Munich I was almost alone in it.Two days earlier there had been an air attack on the station and its surroundings. The main building had been partially destroyed. Rough board partitions separated the rubble from those areas where it was safe to walk. Notices were still hanging at an angle. Lighting had been torn out, the roof above the platforms was propped up on makeshift posts. I was probably risking my life when I got off the train, but we did that almost all the time anyway.Every farewell could be forever. Every arrival could be for the last time. Every departure could be final. The young Wehrmacht soldiers boarding the train on the opposite platform knew that many of them would never come back.I made my way through embracing couples, swaying as they stood there in sorrow and bewilderment, I passed mothers raising their hands lightly to wave good-bye, just sketching the gesture to spare their sons the sight of the collapse they would suffer as soon as the train began to move, one mother with her hand pressed to her mouth, another with her hand still raised in the air, as if she had spent years taming a hawk and had now let it fly free. And there it went, there it went, and who knew if it would ever be seen again?

Bookclub Guide

1. Were you able to relate to Marlene, and if so, how?2. Would you agree that Marlene, in many ways, seems like a normal girl caught in frighteningly abnormal circumstances? Why or why not?3. Does reading about Marlene’s complicity make you uneasy at all, and if so, why?4. Should literature please us or make us uncomfortable? How does Eva’s Cousin do either, neither, or both?5. How do history and fiction collide in Eva’s Cousin? Do you find “truth” in stories, in facts, or in both? What does “historically accurate” even mean?6. Hitler himself famously used the Armenian genocide and Europe’s apparent amnesia of it, as an example of how the victors write history. How might Gertrude Weisker’s story have been different had Germany won World War II? What does this say about history’s relationship to fiction?7. Why would an author choose to fictionalize a story like Weisker’s? How do your expectations change as a reader when you read a novel about an historical event, versus a history book?8. What constitutes an “historical event”?9. The Nazis themselves knew that words are dangerous. Do you think Marlene knew this, as well? If so, why?10. How could Eva Braun love a man like Hitler? What might this suggest about the nature of love, if anything?11. Would you recommend this book to anyone? Why or why not? Would you recommend it to a German friend? Why or why not?12. What, if anything, does this book contribute to your understanding of Germany during World War II? Does it confirm or challenge any of your current knowledge about the War?

Editorial Reviews

“An intimate portrait of two women at the center of history and how innocence itself can be a crime against humanity. My book of the year.”
Orange Prize-winning author of When I Lived in Modern Times