Surviving two wars, sharing one husband, searching for answers.
A secret compartment in a black lacquer cabinet left in an attic reveals the secrets of two incredible women: Hilda, born and raised in one of the wealthiest Jewish families in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, and Katie, whose early life in Germany is marked by tragedy and death. Their lives are forever entwined by their love of the same man, the brilliant and compassionate Dr. Josef Samson.
From the earliest, rough-and-tumble days of San Francisco, through the devastation of the Great War in Berlin and the terrors of Vichy France, and then to a new yet uncertain life in New York City, their stories span the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century. In the end, one of these women will complete the life of the other and make a startling discovery about the husband they share.
This book caught me unawares as it swept through the history of late 19th century and twentieth century Europe and America. Focusing on the story of two women, Hilda and Katie, both of whom married Josef Samson, we are shown what happened to Jewish families in Germany from the 1840s until the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.
At first, we are given tiny hints as the author recounts meeting Katie, a widow, living in New York and hears about her beloved husband who had died in 1961. She becomes a close family friend, so it is not surprising that when she dies, she leaves him an envelope of documents. Circumstances cause this envelope to be ignored and it is not until this year, during the pandemic, that he investigates the contents. He also has another look at a small black cabinet she left, discovering a secret compartment contains a journal. Now he must piece together the story of the two women who loved Josef Samson.
In the words of Hilda and Katie we become closely involved in their lives. Hilda describes how her father and her uncle, as young Jewish men, had needed to leave their loved ones in Germany to seek their fortunes in America. By the time her mother and her aunt arrived in San Francisco the two men were on their way to becoming very wealthy. They had succeeded first as traders and then as bankers supporting those who had joined the gold rush. As a result, Katie grew up in a privileged household and she was able to follow her interests in art and culture. She describes the terror of the San Francisco earthquake but the family escape serious harm and a holiday in Germany meeting distant cousins introduces her to Josef. After a long correspondence they marry in Berlin and establish a happy marriage despite the shortages of the early years of World War One. Josef briefly takes over the story at a sad time and then we move to the words of Katie.
Katie was a young child in Berlin in 1914. Her father went to war and her family suffered. One of her brothers died of TB and the other followed extreme right-wing politics. After the war ended her embittered mother died but at least Katie was able to look after father. She was happy to take a job as a companion to a rich elderly lady who treated her as a friend. When she met the lady’s son, Josef, they soon became close. After his mother’s death, Josef and Katie became lovers, despite a 30-year age gap. As the political situation became more dangerous, Josef moved to Paris and Katie followed soon after. Once war started and Germany invaded France, Josef was arrested but later he was released and eventually both he and Katie were imprisoned in different camps in Vichy France. The story describes their eventual marriage and escape through Portugal to the United States but there is an interesting twist in the tale.
I was captivated by their stories and their survival against all odds. This is a wonderful way to learn more about the tumultuous history of the twentieth century.
The Other Mrs Samson on Amazon UK