Desert Isle Keeper
The Curator's Daughter
The Curator’s Daughter is a story of how women often find themselves in the most impossible situations and manage to rise above them to create a better world for themselves, those they love and all who come after them.
Hanna Tillich is not a Nazi, but she is reluctantly employed by them. She worked all her life to become an archeologist and accepts that in 1940 Germany, that means working for the Third Reich, and spending her days “searching for the Holy Grail and other artifacts to bolster evidence of a master Aryan race”. Her training is in field work, her present assignment is in France, but she knows she is on borrowed time. Hitler believes the women of the Reich should be involved only with “Kinder, Küche and Kirche” (children, kitchen,church). This means that female workers in all fields are finding themselves unemployed as they are forced out of their jobs and encouraged to marry and have kids.
Hanna refuses to participate in this farce and when her boss, Standertenführer Kolman Strauss, dismisses her and delivers a marriage proposal at the same time, she grudgingly accepts the former and politely declines the latter.
Reassigned to work as a curator at the Germanic National Museum in her hometown of Nuremberg, Hanna travels back to Germany but when she reaches the family home, she makes a shocking discovery. Her cousin Louisa and Louisa’s husband Paul who have been living there are missing. Their possessions are still in the house but they themselves have seemingly vanished without a trace. A phone call to an old family friend provides only vague answers and mysterious allusions to danger. Hanna comes to the slow realization it has something to do with the Jewish issue – Paul had Jewish ancestry – just as her own life implodes. Her refusal of Kolman’s proposal has been overridden by Himmler and she has been ordered to appear at Wartburg Castle for her wedding.
Wed and back at Hanna’s house in Nuremberg, Kolman and Hanna settle into an odd sort of marriage, where they live together but rarely interact. Those interactions center around getting Hanna pregnant but when she remains stubbornly barren after the first few months, Kolman leaves one day and when he returns, he brings their newly adopted daughter Lilly with him.
Hanna does her best to bond with Lilly, who, even at her extremely young age (three or four) seems to be harboring secrets of her own. This presents a challenge to Hanna, who desperately wants to know where Lilly came from. Hanna has begun chronicling the events around her and realizing that a great deal of nastiness is occurring beneath the pristine surface of Hitler’s Germany, and her observations point to the fact that Lilly’s arrival might be due to some nefarious act on the part of the Reich. She is also concerned that her records of new museum items stolen from Jewish families, as well as her written histories of what is happening to those families, will endanger Lilly if Hannah is caught. As the wife of an SS Officer who has frequent Gestapo guests, Hanna lives with the constant threat of discovery, but she is determined that the atrocities of the Reich be catalogued for future generations. As the war continues, Hanna and Lilly live quietly, becoming close but each keeping their own counsel until the past finally catches up to them both.
Eight decades later, Holocaust researcher Ember Ellis is horrified as she witnesses history repeating itself. Groups such as the Aryan nation send death threats to her office and march outside of where she works, spewing the same hate-filled prejudice the Nazis had embraced. When she sees an article about her former teacher, a German immigrant named Mrs. Kiehl, sharing reminisces of a mother who was “a friend to the Jewish people”, Ember determines to interview the woman so she can write the history of those who stood up to hate in the past in the hopes of inspiring that same spirit in folks in the present. The elderly Mrs. Kiehl has only fragmented memories of her girlhood in Germany, however, and she has no paperwork or pictures from that era to jog her erstwhile recollections. Ember determines to help Mrs. Kiehl reclaim her remembrances of that bygone era and discover what happened to the mother who mysteriously disappeared just before Mrs. Kiehl was brought to America. She is less than thrilled when this involves working with her childhood nemesis, Dakota Kiehl, who had humiliated Ember in front of the entire student body during their high school years. Their reluctant partnership will lead them from the lush storm-filled beauty of Martha’s Vineyard to the quiet hills above the city of Nuremberg, where a woman named Hanna hid secrets that would help bring about the fall of an empire.
Both Hanna and Ember are complicated characters. Hanna is almost frozen emotionally. A college love affair had left her hurt and confused and her travesty of a marriage destroys any lingering hopes she had of love. She cares deeply for Lilly and finds her primary companionship in her daughter. Her other great passion is her work as a historian and so it is natural that she thinks in terms of recording histories when it comes to helping others. There is not much more she can do – anytime she goes near anyone she risks exposing them to the SS. Kolman doesn’t love or trust her, the Gestapo has a special interest in her and both are watching her closely.
Where Hanna is by necessity quiet and secretive, Ember is more open and loving. She has close friends, a good relationship with her brother and while there is no love interest currently in her life, she’s open to the possibility of one. She also has a complicated dark past involving her father and mother being founding members of an Aryan Nation style church, something she and her brother had despised. She attempts to atone for her parent’s sins by being as anti-racist as she can.
It’s Ember’s awareness of the darkness of her own past that makes her open to the idea of restitution and forgiveness on the part of Dakota. He faked a romance with her in high school as part of a bet with friends and broke her heart at that time. As she gets to know him now, she realizes he truly is penitent for the nasty way he behaved and that he is sincere in his longing for a relationship with her. This part of the story could have used a bit more filling out; while Ember seems to accept the changes in Dakota are real because they are inspired by his faith, I could have used a bit more convincing.
This novel takes a very low-key approach to the inspirational aspect of the tale. God and faith are mentioned but they are not a primary focal point in the story. Instead, they serve as motivation for our characters to grow.
As a lover of dual timeline tales and WWII history, I enjoyed The Curator’s Daughter and would recommend it to those with similar tastes.