A steel shutter down, a family cut in two. It shouldn’t be like this, didn’t have to. She had to do more, she didn’t. She could have done more, couldn’t she? She could. She didn’t. Memories are useless, they have ended, and she could have done more.
(from The English German Girl, page 191)
The English German Girl is one of those books that leaves you speechless when you turn the last page and haunts you for weeks afterward. It’s also one of the best World War II novels I’ve read depicting the struggles of Jews living in Germany as Hitler and the Nazis come to power. Jake Wallis Simons follows the Klein family — Otto, a successful surgeon, Inga, his wife, and their three children, Heinrich, Rosa, and Hedi — to show how Jews were swiftly stripped of their freedoms, afraid to walk the streets, unable to buy food, and not wanted in the country of their birth yet prevented from leaving.
Tensions build and explode into the chaos and violence of Kristallnacht, with Inga and Hedi wandering a train station for hours trying to blend in, Rosa furiously riding her bike through the angry crowds in search of a safe haven, and Heinrich trying to convince Otto to heed the warnings of a family friend and hide. After Otto and Heinrich return from the horrors of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to Inga and the girls living in a boarded up house where they are afraid to turn on the lights, they are even more desperate to escape Germany.
Simons expertly develops his characters and paints such a vivid portrait of prewar Berlin that readers can put themselves in the Kleins’ shoes, which makes Otto and Inga’s decision to send 15-year-old Rosa to London on a Kindertransport train, with only a slim chance of securing the work permits and visas her family will need to join her in England, all the more heartbreaking. Once in England, Rosa frantically searches for someone — anyone — to help reunite her family, but it’s not long before war breaks out and her parents and siblings are trapped in Germany.
Rosa has no choice but to build a new life in a country where she doesn’t speak the language with distant relatives who are less than thrilled with her presence — and her budding relationship with their son, Samuel. While Rosa struggles with first love and its consequences, her studies, and the nightly bombing raids, she waits for the war to end so she can return to the shelter of her family.
Beautifully written, with rich details and unforgettable characters, The English German Girl is a powerful novel about how war brings people together and tears them apart, how far people are willing to go to save the ones they love, and finding hope among the horrors, love among the ruins, and the strength to keep going. I was blown away by Simons’ storytelling, how he made me feel as though I was actually in prewar Berlin and wartime London, walking alongside characters who felt real, like I knew them as well as I know myself. Another contender for my Best of 2013 list.
Disclosure: I received The English German Girl from Skyhorse Publishing for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.