Tasting Food For The Führer At 'The Wolf's Table'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The novel "At The Wolf's Table" begins with what sounds like a fine meal - string beans doused with melted butter, roasted peppers, rice and peas, apple strudel for dessert. Opulent cuisine, really, for 1943 Germany, and Rosa Sauer is hungry. But she struggles to keep her meal in her stomach. She has to stay at the table, seated and squirming, for an hour. Rosa Sauer and nine other conscripted women are food tasters for the Fuhrer at Adolf Hitler's forest headquarters called the Wolf's Lair. Rosella Postorino's international bestseller has been translated from Italian and published in English in the United States. She joins us from Rome. Thanks so much for being with us.
ROSELLA POSTORINO: Thank you. Hi.
SIMON: Tell us about the real person who - whose story set your mind in motion.
POSTORINO: Yeah. The story is inspired to a real story. That's the story of Margot Woelk. Four years ago, I was reading an Italian newspaper, and I found a brief article about Margot Woelk. That was a German woman. She was from Berlin. And for the first time in her life, she confessed that she had been, during World War II, one of Hitler's food tasters. And what was interesting to me was that she was not a Nazi, but she risked her life every day, three times a day...
POSTORINO: ...To save Hitler's life. So I wrote her a letter to ask if we could meet. But, in the same week, she died.
SIMON: She was in her 90s, right?
POSTORINO: Yeah. She confessed this secret at the end of her life. And I was very sad and upset because I couldn't meet her. And, at the beginning, I also thought that I couldn't write anything about her or her story because, you know, I'm not a German. I've never lived under a dictatorship. And so I thought that I hadn't the right to speak about her. But, at the same time, I feel obsessed by her story. What would I have done if I had been in her shoes?
SIMON: Yeah. Well, that question resounds throughout the novel. When we meet Rosa, she's got a husband, who's on the Eastern Front. She's living with her in-laws. What else could she do?
POSTORINO: Yeah. She can do anything. She lived in Berlin. Her house was destroyed by a bomb, and she was alone. And she decided to move to her parents' - in-laws' house. And they lived very close to the Wolf's Lair, one of Hitler's headquarters. And so one week after her arrival, she was recruited by SS to become one of Hitler's food tasters. And what is interesting to me is that she was, at the same time, a victim and a guilty person.
SIMON: Yeah. The - in the novel, the women who were the food tasters are told, eat up, wait an hour, live or die. That's not exactly buon appetito, is it?
POSTORINO: No, no.
SIMON: It's interesting. Hitler was convinced the British were out to poison him. I have read a lot of Winston Churchill biographies. And Churchill ate and particularly drank whatever he wanted.
POSTORINO: Yeah (laughter).
SIMON: So he didn't seem to think the Nazis were...
POSTORINO: He wasn't scared.
SIMON: Yeah. So why was Hitler so frightened? I mean, if the British could figure out a way, they would have. But there was no reason to think they were even close to poisoning him, was there?
POSTORINO: Yeah. But Hitler was paranoid. He was a neurotic person. He had problems in sleeping, had problems in trusting people. So he always thought he'd be killed, not only by his enemies but also by his friends. And so he was right.
SIMON: Rosa is there in the Wolf's Lair. And on her way to taste the Fuhrer's food, when the plot of German officers to assassinate him explodes, truly, but, of course, doesn't kill him, is that when she begins to wonder if she's on the right side of history?
POSTORINO: You know, in my novel, the story is told by an old Rosa. She's telling this story from a future, and she knows everything about the Reich. She has no alibi. And so the fact that she tells the story from this period allows me to represent, also, Rosa's conscience. And, probably, she - now she knows that she was at the bad part of the story.
SIMON: Did you like Rosa, your character?
POSTORINO: Yeah. I like her because she's very human, I think. This contradiction - I mean, the fact that she is victim and guilty at the same time is very human. I mean, this contradiction is typical of human beings in every era. I always choose characters that allow me to represent the ambivalence of human behaviors.
SIMON: She says, at one point, the one thing I've learned from life is survival.
POSTORINO: Yeah. She survived. She's old. She was not killed by poison. She was not killed by Russian people. But, actually, she doesn't leave because she's always like if she was in prison. Prison is the memory of the traumatic experience of the war and of her absurd job, eating Hitler's food.
SIMON: Rosella Postorino - her novel "At The Wolf's Table." Thank you so much for being with us.
POSTORINO: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "CALENDAR PROJECT: JANUARY")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.