Picks and Pans Review: Stella

updated 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Peter Wyden

Stella is the harrowing story of a Jew who hunted down Jews in wartime Berlin. Clumsy and at times difficult to follow, the book nonetheless forces a reader to take notice.

For journalist Peter Wyden, this is a personal story. He and the beautiful, blond, Aryan-looking Stella Goldschlag grew up in 1930s Berlin, attended the same school and sang next to each other in chorus. Like all the boys, Wyden was crazy about "my Stella," whose family, like his, was proud of its Germanity and ashamed of its Jewishness. They couldn't believe the Nazis would target them—they thought it was the eastern Jews of Poland and Russia Hitler was after. Fortunately for Wyden, his parents woke up in time to escape to America. Stella's did not.

In 1945, when 22-year-old Wyden returned to Germany as a propagandist with the U.S. Army, he discovered that Stella had survived the war by becoming a Gestapo agent. Decades later, haunted by this knowledge, he decided to investigate.

He learned that Stella had at first been a victim—detained and tortured by the Nazis in Berlin. Recognizing that her intelligence and attractiveness would be useful to them, her captors persuaded her—in exchange for keeping her parents off the deportation lists—to become a Greifer or "catcher," a Jew who hunts for hidden Jews. But long after her parents were sent to their deaths, she continued coolly to sniff out friends in their hideouts.

After the war, Stella—who had become infamous among her victims as "the blond poison"—served 10 years in Soviet labor camps. Today she lives as a Christian in a small German town. To Wyden she maintained that she only pretended to go along and that the Jews who testified against her despised her for being so attractive.

In his disorderly fashion, Wyden manages to create a sharp portrait of the hatred and hysteria that gripped Berlin during the period of the kristallnacht, the infamous 1938 nocturnal rampage against Jews and their property; of the inner workings of the Berlin camps where captured Jews awaited shipment to Auschwitz; and of the terror-filled lives of the U-boat crews, who ironically felt safe only during air raids. And he tells the heartbreaking story of Stella's daughter, who has spent a lifetime trying to forget her mother and make amends, working, for instance, as a public-health nurse in Israel.

Despite its shortcomings, Stella is a haunting saga, a disturbing search for answers to the question: How far will a person go to survive? (Simon & Schuster, $23)

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