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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
Dark Room spotlights wartime truths
BY BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

For her first novel, Rachel Seiffert ventures into the tough terrain of World War II Germany and how its ordinary civilians reacted to Hitler's murderous regime.

Through three separate stories, Seiffert looks at the effect of this painful period on the younger generation of Germans, forced to live with a damning legacy they do not understand.

Written in plain, staccato present tense prose, Seiffert's style takes some getting used to. But once acclimatised, the reader is compulsively swept up in the lives on the page.

First there is Helmut, a fervently patriotic young man growing up in wartime Berlin. He longs to serve his country but is rejected because he is disabled in one arm.

Feeling ashamed and ostracised - even from his doting parents - Helmut becomes a photographer.

He uses his craft to capture the changes to his beloved country, unconscious of the symbolism unfolding in front of his eyes.

Hindsight

The second story is of 12-year-old Lore and her four younger siblings and takes place just after the war.

Lore's beloved mother and father, members of the Nazi Party, have been imprisoned by the Allies, leaving the children to fend for themselves.

Terrified but determined, Lore guides her family hundreds of miles across Germany to what she hopes will be the safety of her grandmother's home.

Micha, the third story, is very different. Set in Berlin in the late 90s, it tells the story of a young teacher obsessed with the part he believes his grandfather, a soldier in the Waffen SS, played in the massacres in Belarus.

Paradoxically, this last story, though set in the comfortable environment of contemporary Germany, is the most troubling of the three.

Micha's tortured hindsight is inconsolable. Even if his once adored grandfather was a killer, there is no way of knowing why and no one to punish or blame.

For Micha and his generation there is no recourse but to move on. And it is this sense of sad relativity that imbues Seiffert's powerful and moving work.

Prejudices

Seiffert takes the camera theme of her title, and runs it as a motif through her narrative, testifying to events but stepping back from them at the same time.

Though endowed with the benefit hindsight, Seiffert seeks no answers, no forgiveness or to imply guilt for the horrors of the war.

In Helmut and Lore, references to the Holocaust are made in whispers, as if through a haze.

The effect powerfully conveys the stunned incomprehension of a nation feeling betrayed and struck with grief.

Seiffert's stories are painful but well worth the read as they shatter prejudices and preconceptions about the history of the German nation.

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