Home . . . Leaving behind the lofty slopes to descend the mountains into Czechoslovakia, Stella looked out at the patchwork swells of white amidst evergreens that swept past the car. She was reminded of the quilt she’d made, a surprise birthday gift for her uncle. That was before the Nazis destroyed it along with the rest of their possessions — before they took Morty away.
Lord, why don’t you hear me? Why have you taken away my joy?
Anger battled her exhaustion with the drowsing lull of the car’s motion. Home was a place that, even if she lived, would never be the same.
(from For Such a Time, page 27)
Kate Breslin’s debut novel, For Such a Time, is a retelling of the biblical story of Esther set in Czechoslovakia during World War II. It is the story of 23-year-old Hadassah Benjamin, whose blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to pass as an Aryan, Stella Muller, until an encounter with the Gestapo lands her in Dachau. Rather than be shot by the firing squad, she is whisked away to Theresienstadt by SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt to serve as his secretary.
From the very beginning, Stella and Aric’s relationship is complex. He is a Nazi, but new to the SS, having served as a Wehrmacht officer until an injury ended his career on the front lines. He is drawn to Stella and vows to protect her, but his conscience and sense of duty are in constant battle — especially when Stella urges him to help the weak, starving, bedraggled prisoners in the ghetto. Aric isn’t aware of Stella’s true identity, but she sees the compassion he has for his houseboy, Joseph, an orphan from the ghetto whom Stella treats like a son. He also goes out of his way to protect her from the lecherous, scheming Captain Hermann.
Their relationship seems doomed from the start, especially when Stella learns that the “paradise ghetto” is a transit camp and that the prisoners await further horrors at Auschwitz, and Aric is tasked with making the camp look like a resort to fool the Red Cross delegation that is soon to arrive. With danger coming from all directions, Stella and Aric must keep faith in God and each other in order to survive. But survival isn’t good enough for Stella unless her people can be saved, too.
I think novelists take a risk when they write about the Holocaust. How do they convey the hopelessness, the horror, the evil, and the magnitude of the Holocaust and, at the same time, approach it from a new angle? How do they rewrite a part of history and fictionalize the events without dishonoring those who lived it? In For Such a Time, Breslin changes timelines and facts in order to mirror the events in the biblical story of Esther. For the most part, I think she was successful. Breslin does a wonderful job capturing the conflicting emotions and actions of the main characters, and her descriptions of the squalid conditions in the ghetto and the horrible way its inhabitants were treated are believable. At times I thought Aric and Stella’s romance was a bit overdone, but Breslin enabled me to know and understand them enough that I could believe it.
However, I struggled with how to rate this novel based on the believability of the plot. I appreciated the author’s note at the end where Breslin clearly separates the fact from the fiction, but in this case, it’s mostly fiction. But I reminded myself that it is a novel, after all, and a page-turner at that. Life has been so busy and stressful these last several months, and it’s been hard finding the time and energy to read. For Such a Time was the first book in a long time that I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to read, and for that alone it deserves 5 stars. It was an enjoyable novel (or as enjoyable as a novel about the Holocaust can be), and it read like a thriller toward the end. I just got lost in the story and followed the characters through times of despair, hope, bravery, sorrow, and joy. Even if I couldn’t believe the outcome, I wanted to, and I applaud Breslin for taking a chance and telling a story about hardship and courage, love and faith, and a fight for freedom.
Disclosure: I received For Such a Time from Bethany House for review.
© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.