As The Living and the Lost opens, Millie Mosbach has just returned to her hometown, Allied-occupied Berlin. Millie is German and Jewish, and she escaped Berlin as a teen before the war with her brother, David. She attended high school and college in the U.S. with the help of an American family friend, all the while not knowing whether her parents and younger sister survived.
Postwar Berlin is almost unrecognizable. It’s a mess of rubble and half-standing buildings, its inhabitants starving, the city divided into Allied and Soviet sections that are not yet completely sundered by the Berlin Wall. Millie has joined the U.S. Army, helping to sort out which Berliners can continue to work as editors, publishers and translators in this new denazified Germany. Meanwhile, David, who served with the Army in Europe during the war, is in Berlin, too, and he’s not telling Millie what he’s up to.
As the novel moves between Millie’s and David’s points of view, we get vivid glimpses of life in this unsettled landscape, with uncanny scenes of American military officers enjoying beers in former Nazi halls, German Fräuleins by their sides, and the abundance in military black markets contrasting with the extreme lack faced by Berliners. Millie is haunted by the probable loss of her parents and sister and by the choices she made earlier in life.
As Millie tries to tamp down her trauma, guilt and anger, the novel flashes back in time, filling in the siblings’ pasts. While she was a scholarship student at the tony Bryn Mawr College, Millie experienced both the joys of college life and a genteel but insidious antisemitism.
The Living and the Lost moves along quickly, and its descriptions and dialogue feel true to the era. While the novel would have benefited from more interiority from both Millie and David, it’s still an illuminating historical drama with plenty of action and even some romance, evoking a lesser-known historical period—the immediate postwar era and Berlin before the wall—and the complications and compromises that come with the end of war.