Sara Young’s historical novel, My Enemy’s Cradle
(2008), is her first book for adult readers. Threatened by increasing restrictions and violence against Jews during World War II, half-Jewish Cyrla assumes her cousin’s identity and seeks refuge in a Nazi maternity home for unwed mothers. Cyrla must hide her heritage and escape before the birth of her baby. My Enemy’s Cradle
examines themes of war, hope, and love.My Enemy’s Cradle
opens in Schiedam, Holland in 1941, where Cyrla, the novel’s first-person narrator, has been living with her late mother’s family for five years. With her blonde hair, Cyrla resembles her Dutch Christian mother and can easily be mistaken as her cousin Anneke’s twin. In her Aunt Mies and Uncle Pieter’s home, Cyrla must hide her Jewish ancestry; she cannot celebrate the Jewish faith she was raised in by her Polish Jewish father. Cyrla lives in fear of discovery, especially now that the Nuremberg Laws have recently been implemented in Holland, listing more restrictions on Jews and forcing them to register with the authorities. Cyrla is suspicious of old Mrs. Bakker next door, who is always spying on conversations.
At nineteen, Cyrla is jealous of her cousin Anneke’s happiness and ease in life. Anneke confides that she is pregnant. The father is Karl, a handsome, blue-eyed German soldier. Anneke insists that Karl hates the Nazis and is only a soldier because he was conscripted and had no choice. He is a gentle boatbuilder who will not raise his hand in the Nazi salute. Anneke plans to marry him. Cyrla doesn’t like Karl, but she does have a crush on Isaak Meier, a dark, serious-eyed, emotionally unavailable Jewish activist. Isaak warns Cyrla it is time to get out of Holland.
Anneke tells Cyrla that Karl has had to leave: she must tell Aunt Mies and Uncle Pieter about her pregnancy. Uncle Pieter is livid, calling Anneke a whore and lamenting the shame she has brought to the family. His “solution” is to send her to a Lebensborn, a maternity ward for women who are giving birth to Aryan babies. Lebensborn means “wellspring of life” and the facilities were a Nazi project founded by Heinrich Himmler with the goal of increasing the birth rate of Aryan children. Isaak tells Cyrla that these facilities are “dark cradles” whose motto is “have one baby for the führer.” Anneke passes a racial purity test but returns unusually subdued. Using a knitting needle, Anneke aborts her baby and bleeds to death rather than go to the Lebensborn.
Aunt Mies puts Cyrla’s name on the death certificate, trying to protect her from persecution by giving her Anneke’s identity, but a notice that “Jews must register” is slipped under their door. Isaak agrees to try to get Cyrla pregnant so she can hide in the Lebensborn until he can arrange passage to England. They are intimate, but Cyrla is crushed when Isaak says he doesn’t love her. Cyrla is raped by a German soldier. She goes to the Lebensborn but discovers it is outside Munich, not in Holland. She worries that Isaak will not know how to find her.
The Lebensborn is surrounded by granite walls, fences, and guards with dogs. It houses more than one hundred girls. Cyrla meets the fierce Frau Klaus, who oversees the nurses, and kind Sister Ilse, who takes care of the newborns. Cyrla rooms with Leona, a girl from Amsterdam, who instructs Cyrla not to trust anyone, especially the German girls who think they’re superior. She explains that Cyrla should think of the baby as a medical condition and not get attached because the babies will be given to their German fathers or adopted by a “good Nazi family.”
Days go by and Cyrla discovers she truly is pregnant. Leona gives birth and her baby is taken away: Leona goes home. Neve, Cyrla’s new roommate, also gives birth, but the infant boy has a harelip. Cyrla is appalled to hear that “imperfect” children, like another that was born deaf, maybe killed.
Cyrla is desperate to hear from Isaak. She sends him a letter, then plans her own escape when she receives no reply. Karl appears at the Lebensborn looking for Anneke. Cyrla learns that Anneke never told Karl she was pregnant. Cyrla initially rebuffs Karl’s friendship and his offers of help. He suggests plans for her escape. Karl insists that Cyrla needs to see him, not the uniform: he is adamant he is not a Nazi. She asks him to find Isaak. One day, he tells her to go outside to the flower shed. She disregards his request. Talking to him a week later, she is aghast to learn that Karl had located Isaak, who waited for her in the shed, but is now gone. Karl is angry, saying he took a huge risk and is “sick of trying to protect you and getting slapped in the face.” Cyrla apologizes. She realizes she loves Karl, and he loves her.
It is nearly time for Cyrla to give birth when she discovers that some sensitive personal effects which reveal her Jewish heritage are missing from her room. Cyrla goes in search of her ally, Sister Ilse, and finds she has been dismissed. Cyrla bluffs her way out of the facility and calls Karl. He picks her up and reveals that he has been questioned about her. Karl plans to drive Cyrla to Holland. Just short of the border, they hear sirens. He tells Cyrla to run; he stays with the car. Cyrla makes it to safety and Karl is arrested.
In 1947, Cyrla, along with her young daughter, Anneke, tracks down Karl’s sister, Erika. Cyrla learns that Karl is alive, having survived three years in the Dachau concentration camp. Cyrla shares that Isaak was killed in Buchenwald. Karl and Cyrla reunite and discover they still love each other.