Cra­dles of the Reich: A Novel

By – January 13, 2023

The extent to which the Third Reich pur­sued its eugenic aims has not been explored in lit­er­a­ture as much as it should be, which makes Jen­nifer Coburn’s new his­tor­i­cal nov­el an impor­tant read for any­one look­ing to learn more. Through three dis­tinct but inter­sect­ing view­points, The Cra­dles of the Reich focus­es on Lebens­born, a Nazi-spon­sored project ded­i­cat­ed to increas­ing the num­ber of Aryan chil­dren in Ger­many. By evok­ing the emo­tion­al dev­as­ta­tion and moral quan­daries of these fic­tion­al char­ac­ters, Coburn brings this project of racial hygiene” from the realm of the unbe­liev­able into the harsh light of real­i­ty. It’s hard to deny the truth after being immersed in it.

The Cra­dles of the Reich fol­lows Gun­di, a mem­ber of the resis­tance who is preg­nant with her Jew­ish lover’s child; Hilde, a girl eager to climb the ranks of the Reich, even if that means sleep­ing with an old­er, mar­ried SS mem­ber; and Irma, a nurse at Heim Hochland, the Lebens­born mater­ni­ty home where most of the nov­el takes place. Each of these char­ac­ters must con­tend with their own ethics under the influ­ence of Nazi pro­pa­gan­da and the con­se­quences that come with resist­ing what they’ve been told to think.

Lead­ing Nazi par­ty mem­bers once called Nazism applied biol­o­gy,” and the Lebens­born birthing project exem­pli­fies this ide­ol­o­gy. One of the most shud­der-induc­ing moments of the book takes place at the begin­ning, when the sin­is­ter Dr. Ebn­er vio­lates Gun­di as a part of an exam­i­na­tion” to deter­mine the health of her baby. After­wards, he tells her, Gun­di, do you know why we mea­sured you? … It turns out that you are a per­fect spec­i­men of Ger­man wom­an­hood.” The word spec­i­men” demon­strates the way Nazism turned human beings into sci­en­tif­ic studies.

Heim Hochland itself is a fas­ci­nat­ing, and hor­ri­fy­ing, set­ting. Even in such a bru­tal atmos­phere, the girls chat­ter and gos­sip like any­one their age, of any time, would. Irma’s fond­ness for the girls, and for chil­dren in gen­er­al, reveals the com­plex inner lives of those who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the anti­semitism of the Third Reich. Each of the main char­ac­ters has a secret of her own, which makes the nov­el grip­ping and sus­pense­ful. And the his­tor­i­cal detail nev­er bogs down the plot or char­ac­ter development.

The Cra­dles of the Reich is both edu­ca­tion­al and deeply mov­ing, show­cas­ing aspects of Nazi Ger­many that often go undis­cussed. Coburn human­izes, with­out con­don­ing, the women that will­ing­ly played a role in the Nazi project of eugen­ics — as well as those who had no choice yet still man­aged to resist.

Ariel­la Carmell is a Brook­lyn-based writer of plays and prose. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where she stud­ied lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy. Her work has appeared in Alma, the Sier­ra Neva­da Review, the Brook­lyn review, and elsewhere.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jen­nifer Coburn

  1. The author of Cra­dles of the Reich is Jew­ish and says she had nev­er heard of the Lebens­born Soci­ety before she was 50 years old. Had you heard of the Nazi breed­ing pro­gram before? Why do you think so few peo­ple know about the program?
  2. Com­pare Hilde and Gundi’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the Novem­ber pogroms the Nazis called Kristall­nacht. Did either of them real­ly under­stand the broad­er con­text of that night?
  3. Gun­di dis­cov­ers a deep con­nec­tion with the Jew­ish faith and cul­ture and wants to con­vert. What is it about Judaism that appeals to her so much?
  4. Why do you think Leo is so hos­tile toward Gun­di at first? Why is she so sur­prised by this?
  5. What do you think hap­pened to Leo and the Solomons? Why do you think the author choose to leave read­ers in the dark about their fate?
  6. There are many exam­ples of the Reich’s coor­di­nat­ed effort to dehu­man­ize Jews, from the board game Juden Raus to the pic­ture book about poi­so­nous mush­rooms to the doc­u­men­tary, The Eter­nal Jew. How do these mate­ri­als relate to Lotte’s insis­tence that great things only hap­pen when strong peo­ple make dif­fi­cult choices”?
  7. Put your­self in Gundi’s shoes when she learns that the father of her child has been framed for a crime and sent to a labor camp. Would you be able to keep your secret? Would you look for a way to help Leo?
  8. If you had five min­utes to speak with Hilde as a young child, what would you tell her?
  9. Gundi’s escape from Heim Hochland almost fails sev­er­al times. Which close call made you the most nervous?
  10. Irma says that she doesn’t want to live in a world where help­ing peo­ple sur­vive is remark­able. How can we make that more ordi­nary in the mod­ern day?