“Please, let me help. I won’t tell anyone.” It was madness to help an escaped prisoner in Nazi Germany, but how could she not? If it weren’t for a lucky strike of fate, she might be the woman on the ground shivering with fear. A light of hope entered the prisoner’s eyes and she knew what she had to do…
1942, Germany: When a young woman calling herself Annegret Huber unexpectedly inherits a huge fortune, including a house and factory just outside Berlin, her first thought is to try to see out the war quietly, avoiding the Gestapo and SS as best she can.
No one needs to know her dark secret. She must focus on staying hidden. Because she can’t risk being exposed for who she truly is. Not really Annegret. But a girl living a secret life.A girl who was once called Margarete.
But then an encounter with an escaped prisoner changes everything, as Margarete discovers what is happening at the factory and its attached labor camp. Witnessing first-hand the suffering of prisoners—shivering, with faces gaunt from hunger, as they work in brutal and cruel conditions—she realises she must act.
If she can save just one life, she knows she has to. Because the truth is that Margarete resembles the prisoners in the camp in ways she daren’t admit. And on the other side of the fence, she has seen a face that is achingly familiar…
An absolutely gripping and devastating story, perfect fans of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, All the Light We Cannot See, and My Name is Eva.Readers love Marion Kummerow:
“Awesome!!… WOW… Completely and utterly amazing… I cannot explain how much I enjoyed reading this… I highly highly recommend this story!! It was simply amazing!!” Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Incredible… I couldn’t stop reading… It would be a great movie… [It] made me cry.” Rachel Wesson ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Wonderful, wonderful… I was blown away by this book. I couldn’t put it down. I ignored everything and everyone until I finished it.” Nicki’s Book Blog ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“This story was heartbreaking and riveting. I was up until the wee hours of the morning reading it. I couldn’t put it down until I found out what was happening next…
Release date: November 17, 2021
Print pages: 350
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From the Dark We Rise
She marveled at the beautiful landscapes north of Berlin, as she sat beside Horst Richter, head of the Gestapo in Leipzig.
“I believe you will find the manor a welcome respite,” he said affably as his black limousine emerged from the woods and a small town appeared before them.
“It’s been a while since I’ve visited here.” Despite being on friendly terms with the Gestapo officer, who had become something of a mentor and father figure, she was bathed in a cold sweat.
Horst, as she now called him, had been instrumental in making sure she inherited the vast Huber family fortune. He treated her as a doting father would treat his daughter, something he thought she was lacking since her parents—and then, several months later, both of her brothers—had died in a bombing.
There was only one problem: he wouldn’t hesitate to send her to the Gestapo’s torture dungeons if he ever suspected she wasn’t really Annegret Huber, daughter of his late friend SS-Standartenführer Wolfgang Huber, but Margarete Rosenbaum, the Huber’s former maid—and a Jew.
An imposter who’d taken on Annegret’s identity after a devastating British air raid had sent the Hubers’ house tumbling to the ground, leaving Margarete as the sole survivor. It had been a rash decision to grab Annegret’s papers, who was only two years younger than herself, and pretend to be the high-ranking Nazi’s daughter in order to save herself from suffering the same fate of her fellow Jews.
She shivered at the memory, not only because of her momentous decision, but even just thinking about the explosion itself. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel the low rumble of the earth when the bombs came nearer, the earsplitting screech of the impact and the bloodcurdling sound as the building collapsed. Something hit her and she was knocked unconscious. When she came to again, at first, she couldn’t see, because the air was filled with dust and debris. Coughing and spluttering she finally realized the serendipity that had saved her: the staircase had broken into two, forming a triangle where she’d been trapped beneath and thus protected from the crumbling walls all around her.
Once she could see and breathe again, she crawled from her cave, crinkling her nose at the smell of burnt material and singed flesh. That’s when she saw her, Annegret Huber, lying with twisted limbs and empty, staring eyes. When she was still alive, nobody would have confused the two girls for each other: the haughty, elegant, rich, confident daughter of a high-ranking Nazi and the downtrodden, dull, poor, cowed Jewish maid.
But after crawling from a building blasted to shreds, coated in dust, the two girls of similar age, both with brown shoulder-length hair and hazel eyes, would be interchangeable for any stranger. At least that was what Margarete had based her split-second decision on when she’d borrowed, or rather stolen, Annegret’s identity papers.
And it had worked. Better than planned. In fact, she’d never once imagined she would keep Annegret’s identity for longer than was needed to escape Berlin, and certainly never intended to inherit any part of the Huber family’s fortune.
That day seemed like a lifetime ago, since so much had happened since. And today she would shed her skin once again, and become the mistress of the beautiful manor Gut Plaun, in the quaint village of Plau am See, about one and a half hours’ drive north of Berlin.
She’d never been here before and had only seen the place in paintings and photographs. In reality the landscape was even more beautiful. The dark woods, the lonely roads, everything was so different from war-riddled Berlin. Here, it almost seemed as if Hitler hadn’t thrown the country into a raging war years ago, both against its neighboring countries—and unbeloved parts of its own population.
“Such a lovely sleepy town,” Margarete exclaimed as she admired the streets lined by houses in light-colored masonry with orange-red tiled roofs, red-framed windows, and red doors. When Horst gave her a puzzled glance, she quickly explained. “It doesn’t sound like me, right? I always used to say the countryside was boring and stopped coming here altogether when I was ten, because I hated it so much.” She giggled in Annegret’s high-pitched manner, something she’d perfected through weeks of practice in front of the mirror. “After last year’s horrible experiences, I’ve changed my mind and right now, peaceful and boring is what I need most.”
“Your father liked coming here, because it gave him, too, a sense of peace that Berlin couldn’t provide,” Horst said.
No wonder, since Hitler tossed us into this awful war. Margarete nodded and turned her head. They had left the town behind and she looked at the passing green meadows, contrasted by the darker shades of the trees, and the blue water of the huge Plauer See.
She hadn’t come unprepared. She had spent countless hours in the public library in Leipzig and read up on the history of Plau am See, a medieval town spread around the old castle and the gothic Saint Mary’s Church, featuring some of the most beautiful ancient half-timbered houses. The village had prospered in the last century due to the cloth mill and the iron foundry that had produced the state’s first paddle steamer in 1845. Later, a brickwork factory had completed the town’s industrialization.
Even though nowadays the area was mostly known for its beautiful location on one of the lakes in the Mecklenburg Lake District, it featured a wide array of industries—mostly ammunitions factories safely tucked away from the big cities and the threat of enemy air raids.
“We’re here,” Horst announced about ten minutes later as he pulled through the gates and parked in front of a stunning manor house whose walls were partly clad in ivy. It was a sight to behold and Margarete involuntarily gasped, reminding herself that she now owned this most impressive building.
“It looks smaller than I remember,” she said, just to say something. In reality it was a lot bigger than it had appeared on the photos she’d seen.
“Because you were a child when you last came here.”
As he exited the vehicle and walked around to help her out of the Mercedes, the manor’s front door opened and a man stepped out to retrieve their luggage from the trunk. Margarete barely restrained herself from lending a hand. These ingrained habits still surfaced despite her best intentions and threatened to give her real identity away.
You’re the lady of the manor. Never forget that. She put on a gracious smile and turned toward the house, where a woman in her fifties appeared. Despite wearing a uniform consisting of a blueish-beige dress with white collar and cuffs and an immaculate white apron, she exuded authority. Even without matching her appearance to the one picture she had seen of her, Margarete knew that this woman was Frau Mertens, the housekeeper.
“Welcome, Fräulein Annegret. Herr Reichskriminaldirektor,” Frau Mertens greeted them, even as she ordered the servant to carry the luggage inside with nothing more than a flick of her wrist. “Please forgive me, Fräulein Annegret, I wasn’t informed about your preferences and thus have prepared your old room for you. But if you want to reside in the main chambers, I will immediately take care of the arrangements.”
“That’ll be fine, Frau Mertens,” Margarete answered, fighting the urge to bow her head.
“Thank you, Frau Mertens,” Horst said.
“I have refreshments prepared in the small sitting room, but since we didn’t know the exact time of your arrival, lunch will need another thirty minutes.” Frau Mertens made it sound like an apology.
“That will be fine. We shall freshen up before coming downstairs,” Richter answered. He turned to Margarete. “Would you like to take a stroll through the gardens? I don’t know about you, but my legs could use a good stretch.”
“That sounds like a fine idea,” Margarete readily agreed.
“Good then. Shall we say, in ten minutes?”
“Ten minutes is perfect.” Margarete looked at Frau Mertens, wondering how she could go about inquiring about the location of her room without giving her false identity away. “I trust everything is in order at the manor?” she asked, stalling for time.
“Everything is in the best condition, Fräulein Annegret. Would you be wanting to request anything special for dinner? We don’t have our normal provisions, but I can try…”
Margarete shook her head. “Whatever you had planned will be fine. I’m not picky.”
Frau Mertens raised a brow at that. “When did that happen, Fräulein Annegret? Even as a wee baby you had very strong likes and dislikes.”
Margarete pressed her jaws together. Nine months pretending to be Annegret and she still made such unnecessary slips. Thinking quickly, she decided to use the opportunity to start with a clean slate, and make her version of Annegret more likeable than the real one had been. “I mostly dislike being compared to how I once was as a child. The war has changed all of us and I’m proud to have grown beyond my former selfish and self-absorbed ways.”
“Well, that is a good thing then.” Frau Mertens paused for a moment, side-glancing at Richter, seemingly pondering how best to continue. “My deepest condolences on the death of your brothers. It is deeply disturbing that they were killed in such a heinous way—murdered by the evil French Résistance—and I’m sure our great government has taken steps to avenge their deaths.”
Richter’s eyes became cold and distant as he answered in a clipped voice, “The dangerous criminals responsible for bombing the restaurant in Paris are being rounded up as we speak. No doubt they will face execution after we have found out everything we need to know.”
Crushed by his words, which were news to her, Margarete pulled together all her strength and willpower to stay upright, putting on an expression of satisfaction. “It is balm for my soul to know those monsters will pay for the grief they caused, not only to me, but also to the families of the other victims.” In total four Nazi officers, among them the two Huber brothers, Reiner and Wilhelm, had perished during the explosion.
When Horst didn’t offer any further explanation, she decided to wait until a later time to ask him about the identity of the resisters, hoping her good friend Paulette wouldn’t be amongst those captured.
Memories swamped her. Again, she had been the sole survivor of a vicious explosion, walking away from the destruction like a phoenix from the ashes. Her stomach tightened at the smell of burned material and singed flesh. A smell that had been imprinted onto her brain, making her wake up at night, bathed in sweat, gagging.
It had been the right thing to do—if killing someone could ever be correct—but she still suffered from nightmares. This time she had orchestrated the explosion, had lured the four men into the trap, had locked them inside without a chance to escape the catastrophe.
She still felt a twinge of guilt whenever she thought about it. That last moment, when Wilhelm, the man whose sister she was pretending to be, had looked at her with an abundance of love in his eyes, before he’d sacrificed himself to save her life. She gave a deep sigh.
“Are you alright, Fräulein Annegret?” Frau Mertens asked.
“I am just thinking of my brothers. I still can’t believe they’re gone.”
Frau Mertens nodded. “You poor girl. Let’s go inside.” She turned around and they followed her into the house, where she waved at a thin girl who couldn’t be much older than eighteen. “Come here, Dora.”
Dora wore a similar uniform to the housekeeper, a black dress with a stiff collar. She had a pretty face with big brown eyes and high cheekbones. Her black hair was plaited into one long braid reaching all the way down to her hips. She approached them with her eyes cast downward, stopped a few feet away from Margarete and curtsied. “Fräulein Annegret. Herr Reichskriminaldirektor.”
Herr Richter raised an eyebrow at hearing her strong accent and the girl visibly tensed under his scrutiny.
Frau Mertens hurried to explain, “Dora is Ukrainian. She was assigned to us by the labor office.”
Everyone in the room relaxed. The Ukraine was an ally and, thus, Ukrainians were welcome to work in household positions. Margarete had long given up to seek rhyme or reason in those decisions, because how was a Ukrainian citizen different from a Russian or White Russian? It showed once more that the whole race theory was random and had more to do with politics than science.
“Fräulein Annegret, apart from her general household duties, Dora will be your personal maid while you stay with us,” Frau Mertens explained.
This was the help she’d been looking for. Relieved, she told the maid, “I was just about to freshen up in my room. If you’ll accompany me, you can hang up my clothing and I’ll let you know what needs to be pressed for dinner.”
Dora made another curtsy and nodded several times, before heading up the staircase. Margarete looked at Horst. “Will you find your way? Or should I send Dora back for you?”
Frau Mertens jumped in. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll show the Reichskriminaldirektor to his room myself.” She paused for a moment and then added, “I’m so sorry, but we don’t have the number of staff we used to have.”
“No need to apologize, the war requires sacrifices from all of us,” Margarete cut her short, and reached the top of the stairs just in time to see Dora enter the last door on the right down the left wing. She forced herself to walk sedately in that direction, making sure anyone observing her would believe her to be completely at ease in a once-favorite family getaway.
When Margarete entered the room, she involuntarily shuddered. She had already known that neither Annegret nor her brothers had been at Gut Plaun for close to a decade, but this room confirmed the fact. There was no way the fashionable, life-hungry, spoilt twenty-year-old she had known would stay in a room that looked like a little girl’s dream.
Dora bustled around, opening Margarete’s suitcase, hanging up clothes and placing shoes in the wardrobe. “Shall I take this to the bathroom?” Dora asked, holding up a bathrobe.
“Yes, please.” Seemingly disinterested, she observed the maid with eagle-eyes, eager to familiarize herself with the new surroundings. Dora opened a hidden door in the wall, leading to a private bathroom.
The luxury in the manor was marvelous, and even the Hubers’ former house in Berlin didn’t measure up. Never in her life had she imagined that she’d go from being an exploited Jewish maid on the brink of deportation to a labor camp to the heir to the Huber estate and mistress over dozens of employees.
Margarete walked over to the window and looked out over the vast fields, the sculpted gardens, the stables and the nearby forest. She had no idea yet what exactly she would do with her fortune, but she was determined to fulfill Wilhelm’s last wish, who’d urged her to use it for good.
Yearning filled her heart. Her relationship with Wilhelm had been a complicated one. He, the SS officer and she, the Jew. When he’d forced her to live with him in Paris pretending to be his sister, it had initially been a sinister plan for him to get his hands on the trust fund of his actual sister. And she’d hated him. But every day that passed, he’d shown her an unexpected kindness and she’d slowly fallen in love with him, despite every intention not to.
One day, he’d taken her out into the Bois de Boulogne to a concert organized by the German administration in honor of some thing or other; she didn’t remember the occasion, what she remembered was the wonderful time she spent with Wilhelm.
He’d arranged for a picnic basket, complete with blanket, dishes, baguette, cheese, pâté de foie gras and other delicacies. Finally he’d even produced a bottle of expensive Bordeaux and two glasses. Long after the concert was over, they still sat surrounded by rose bushes, eating, drinking and talking. It was there that he’d told her about his dreams.
“I always wanted to work with art. A curator for a museum, a professor of art history, or even a wealthy philanthropist,” Wilhelm said, his eyes glazing over with a dreamy expression.
She elbowed him. “Holding weekly meetings with artists. Especially the young and beautiful women.”
He grinned at her. “I might. Although you know to whom my heart belongs. In my perfect world there would be no obstacles standing between us and you could be the hostess of my weekly circles, holding intelligent conversation, philosophizing about the essence of life.”
“I know nothing about art or philosophy,” she protested so as not to think about his prospect of getting married to him and living happily ever after, since it was not just impossible, it was illegal and a betrayal, especially to her people who suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis.
“I would teach you.” He fed her another piece of cheese, which she washed down with the wine.
“Where did you learn about art and philosophy?”
“At my family’s summer residence, Gut Plaun. Reiner and I used to have a private teacher, several actually. While Reiner was more interested in riding horses and all kinds of physical exercise, I took a liking to our literature teacher. When our teacher noticed how interested I was in the finer arts, he introduced me into a whole universe of fantastic things. Once he took me into Plau am See to visit the gothic Saint Mary’s Church. It was incredible! This majestic building is more than seven hundred years old, and you can’t imagine how impressed I was. What stayed in my mind most was the baptismal font made in 1570, which has inscriptions referencing Martin Luther’s Reformation.” He looked at her, his eyes full of excitement before he continued. “One day I should hope to show it to you and explain all the finer details that superficial visitors miss, like the wonderful combination of the old Marian piety with the modern Lutheran teachings.” He stopped talking, shaking his head and looking utterly forlorn. Then he put a hand on hers and said, “Well, it was this visit that inspired my love for antiques and my curiosity to find out what is behind each piece of art. What did the artist think? Why did he choose this motif over another? What did he want to convey to the beholder?”
Margarete remembered how much her opinion of him had changed after that conversation. He wasn’t the mindless Nazi she had believed him to be, and if the way of the world had turned out differently, the two of them might actually have had a chance to love each other.
But she’d fought her attraction for him tooth and nail, because despite his kind heart, he was still a cog in the Nazi machine—a machine that was intent on eradicating every member of the Jewish race from the face of the earth. As long as he didn’t turn his back on Hitler, there could never been anything between him and her.
Margarete sighed. Wilhelm was the reason she had come to the country house with the attached lands and stud farm. He had implored her to do good with the inheritance, just before sacrificing his life for hers, and here was the place he’d been happiest, here he’d developed his love for the arts. Here, she hoped to feel close to him and find inspiration.
Because she needed to consider her next steps and how to best use all that money. The French Résistance asked her to finance weapons, dynamite, and other things to sabotage the Germans. But she loathed the idea that she would indirectly be used to kill people, even if the victims were Nazis. That was the main reason why she hadn’t accepted their offer to stay in Paris and work with them. She still hoped to find a way to further the war effort, albeit not the German one, in a non-violent way. She’d given herself a deadline of two months, and if no opportunity presented itself by then, she’d return to Paris and find a way to support the Résistance.
Several minutes later Dora finished unpacking the suitcases and asked, “Shall I unpack your travel bag as well, Fräulein Annegret?”
“Yes, Fräulein Annegret.” The look on Dora’s face was pure anxiety.
“How many people work on the estate?”
“You mean, you don’t know?”
Margarete tilted her head. “I was a child the last time my parents brought me here.”
“In the house we are four: Frau Mertens, Gustav Fischer, the estate manager, Nils, our handyman who picked . . .
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