The Seventh Cross was first published in 1942 in English. (The German version was published in Mexico after the English version.) It became a worldwide bestseller when it was a Book of the Month selection and gave American readers a first glimpse into life in Nazi Germany. It is the story of seven men who escape the concentration camp Westhofen—making this book one of the earliest, if not the earliest, to mention such a camp. While the SA and SS are hunting down the men, the officer in charge of the camp promises that by the end of the week, the seven trees in the camp will serve as crosses on which the escapees will be hanged.
The story focuses on Georg Heisler, one of the escapees, who spent several years imprisoned in Westhofen. As we learn throughout the book, he was quite a jerk before his arrest. Yet as he desperately tries to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, battling sleep deprivation, hunger, and other people’s mistrust, I couldn’t help but feel for him and cheer him on. While he is still hiding in the brush close to the camp, he already hears one of the men being recaptured. He watches as another one is being hunted down in the same city in which he searches for shelter. And by pure chance, he meets a third fellow escapee as the man gets ready to give himself up. Each capture wreaks havoc with Georg’s psyche and squashes the hope of inmates at Westhofen. Over the course of a few days, Georg’s success hinges on a priest’s decision to burn the prison clothes he finds in his church, rather than alerting the police; a young man’s decision to lie about the jacket that Georg has stolen from him; and his friend’s nerve-wracking advice that sometimes it is best to hide in plain sight. But it is not only Hitler’s men who are looking for him. While Georg is frantically searching for a way to escape his hunters for good, the resistance movement is preparing papers and money for him and urgently trying to find him without drawing attention to its operators.
When I first started listening to the (German) audiobook, I was dismayed by how dry and boring the narrator was. And the communist leanings of the author became very obvious in many musings and observations that I often found distracting and unnecessary. But even that couldn’t stop me from becoming completely enthralled by Georg’s story. When Seghers didn’t focus on the political, her observations were extremely astute descriptions of human nature. There are a great number of minor characters that serve to show the spectrum of people’s reactions to the growing totalitarian state—from distaste and indifference to relief and elation. As Georg tries to contact some of his (former) friends, I couldn’t help but be gripped by the suspense of trying to figure out whether they were reliable or out to catch him. Would they risk their own safety to help him or put the well-being of their families first? I was completely enthralled at this point. I wanted to find out how the story would end, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to end because I didn’t want to have to say a final good-bye to Georg—either because he found a way out of the country or because he was dead.
I don’t think this book is for everyone, mostly because of the style. But I encourage you to give it a try, because it is a fascinating look at Germany in the late 1930s, offering both an explanation and a warning of how the Nazis could become so powerful.
To lighten the mood a bit, there is one funny anecdote I have to tell you. The book was made into a movie with Spencer Tracy. While reading, I had the vague sense that I had watched the movie, and scenes of it wavered around in my head. When I told my husband about it, I insisted that he had watched the movie as well. How could he have forgotten that memorable chase with the motorcycle? At this point, he informed me that I had obviously confused The Seventh Cross with The Great Escape and Spencer Tracy with Steve McQueen… So much for my movie knowledge. 🙂