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Standing Room for Author Talk with Jennifer Coburn

WestView News Staff Report

Last Saturday, as part of her national book tour, novelist Jennifer Coburn visited her childhood library, the Jefferson Market Library, to discuss her new book Cradles of the Reich. “The novel is set in a Nazi breeding program, but ultimately it is about the strength of women and how the connections we forge can help us rise to heroism we never imagined we were capable of,” Coburn told a packed house.

Jennifer Coburn’s vivid fiction touches reality

The Associated Press reviewed her story of three very different German women who meet at the real-life Nazi breeding program as setting a high bar for historical fiction, stating that “all historical novels should strive to be this compelling, well-researched, and just plain good.” David Rothenberg of New York’s WBAI radio station recently called Coburn’s novel “essential reading.”

“When I first heard about the Lebensborn breeding program, Heinrich Himmler’s plan to create two million new children for the Nazi’s so-called master race, all I wanted to do was read a well-researched novel that would answer my questions about the program,” Coburn said. “Where were these homes? How were women chosen for the program? And why in the world would women volunteer to have sex with SS officers they’d never met, just to have a child for the Reich?”

As it turned out, Coburn could not find that novel, so she decided to write it herself. “Before this, I wrote a mother-daughter travel memoir called We’ll Always Have Paris and six romantic comedies, so writing about a Nazi breeding home was not the next natural step for my writing career. But I could not stop thinking about this program that existed in the same world as Nazi death camps. It was two sides of the same twisted eugenics plan to create what they considered a master race, but the Lebensborn—by creating life rather than destroying it.”

She said the more she learned the further she got sucked into the research, which included working with Holocaust scholars, German author Bernhard Schlink, and a former member of the Hitler Youth. “I consulted with a food historian—who knew this was a job?—to make sure I was setting the table with the right meals for the seasons and period of history. I know more about rabbit stew than I ever bargained for, but I wanted readers to feel confident that what they are reading is historically, culturally, and linguistically accurate.”

Coburn says the three fictional characters represent the different choices that non-Jewish women could make in Germany in 1939. “There’s Gundi, the resistor, who the Nazis consider genetic perfection, but they don’t know she is pregnant with a Jewish boyfriend’s baby. Nurse Irma is a bystander who, like many Germans, wanted to keep her head down. She feels like she’s doing a good thing for the women in the program— and for her country—but quickly learns what the program is really about and what the Nazi Party truly stands for, and she needs to choose sides.” Coburn said the hardest character to write was Hilde, the Nazi true believer. “As a Jewish woman, it was tough to crawl into the skin of someone who believed the world would be better without my family in it. But I needed to include this voice in order to examine how a country descends into madness and devolves into a cult of hate. Hilde’s character is the personification of the rise of fascism, and that’s something I feel is critical to explore.”

Photo credit: Kenneth Karpel.

Photo credit: Sandra Geis.

Joining vivid pages of reality with fictional links. Photo credit: Sandra Geis.

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