Tragic tale attempts to portray a woman betrayer

January 10, 1993|By Diane Scharper

STELLA.

Peter Wyden.

Simon & Schuster.

382 pages. $23.

Stella, dressed in a 1940s-style brimmed hat and Chesterfield coat, stands beside her husband and co-collaborator. She smiles warmly from the picture and seems the perfect member of what the caption describes as "the beautiful couple." Yet Stella Goldschlag, an attractive woman not yet 30, was anything but beautiful.

"Stella," by Peter Wyden, attempts to show how this woman, called "the blonde poison," betrayed her own Jewish people to the Gestapo and became an ugly footnote to one of the ugliest chapters in history. But the attempt is only partly successful.

The dust jacket suggests that this is Stella's true tale of evil, betrayal and survival in Hitler's Germany. Most of the book, however, has very little to do with Stella.

As a result, the book's focus isn't clear. Is it Stella? Is it what happened to family and friends during the "Final Solution"? Or is the book an attempt to capitalize on a relationship with someone Mr. Wyden knew briefly during childhood?

Saying this, I am not suggesting that the book is not interesting. It is an extensively researched, tragic story, evoking pity and fear. But it isn't Stella's story. Neither is the book one man's tale of love and obsession, as the publicist suggests. Nor is it, as is also suggested, another "Sophie's Choice."

In addition, the sexy photos of Stella on the cover of the book, and in its gallery section, detract from the book's real story as it is suggested in the epigraph, a quote from Primo Levi: "It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness. . . ."

The pictures also seem to be deliberately misleading. The headline for the gallery section says that these are pictures of Stella and Peter Wyden growing up in Berlin. Yet a look at the small print shows that pretty, 4-year-old Stella is snuggling up to her cousin, not to Mr. Wyden, as readers are led to believe. Mr. Wyden does appear in the gallery, but separately. He did not know Stella in his early childhood.

He met Stella when both were students at Goldschmidt's, a school for Jewish children that he attended from late 1935 until early 1937. During those months (he was 13 and she was 14), he sang in the choir with Stella and once followed her home, at a distance. That was the extent of their relationship when Mr. Wyden's family emigrated to the United States.

In 1946, Mr. Wyden returned to Germany as a member of the Allied forces, and it was then that he saw an article about Stella and her crimes. He wrote to Stella in 1989, and two years later interviewed her several times. He tries to use these interviews to hold together this diverse collection of Holocaust stories.

Stella tells Mr. Wyden that she and her family were trapped in Berlin during the war. What exactly did she do, when she became victim and victimizer? Why did she do it? Unfortunately, Mr. Wyden explains neither.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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