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Archive for the ‘WWII’ Category

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★★★☆

But what can I, with my dark skin and friends all over the world, have to do with such a grandfather? Was it he who destroyed my family? Did he cast his shadow first on my mother and then on me? Can it be that a dead man still wields power over the living? Is the depression that has plagued me for so long connected to my origins? I lived and studied in Israel for five years — was that chance or fate? Will I have to behave differently toward my Israeli friends, now that I know? My grandfather murdered your relatives.

(from My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, page 10)

Jennifer Teege was 38 years old when she learned a terrible secret that had plagued her family since long before she was born. Born in Munich, Germany, in 1970, Teege was placed in an orphanage at four weeks old, with sporadic contact with her troubled mother and her grandmother. Contact with her biological family ceased when she was adopted at the age of seven, and she missed her grandmother terribly. Her adopted family welcomed her with open arms despite her differences; with a German mother and a Nigerian father, she always stood out, especially in Germany at that time.

Never feeling like she truly belonged and feeling abandoned by her mother, Teege battled with depression. In the strangest of coincidences she was drawn to a book in the psychology section of the library in Hamburg, and when she pulled it off the shelf, she saw a photo of a woman on the cover who looked like her mother and shared the same name: Monika Goeth, daughter of Amon Goeth, commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp during World War II and who was hanged for his crimes in 1946. He was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler’s List. The knowledge that she was the granddaughter of a Nazi war criminal and a sadistic murderer nicknamed “The Butcher of Płaszów” affected Teege deeply. She didn’t know how to process this information and how to face her friends in Israel, where she lived for five years and attended college, as many lost family members in the Holocaust.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past tells Teege’s story of coming to terms with her family’s past and the secret that was kept from her. The book follows Teege as she visits the scenes of the atrocities committed by her grandfather in Poland, tries to balance her love for her grandmother with what she learns about her complacency during the war and her undying love for Amon Goeth, and tries to build a relationship with her estranged mother and understand why she was never told the truth and why she was given up for adoption. Teege’s story is told in her own words and interspersed with historical details and commentary from the people closest to her.

The book raises many issues, from the burden of family secrets to the guilt carried by the descendants of the Nazis, from the need to understand what is impossible to grasp about human nature and how to cope with the knowledge of the horrors and suffering inflicted by their relatives in the recent past even while knowing they are not directly responsible for those actions. Teege is honest with her feelings, the pain and shame she endured, her failure to make certain things right, and how to accept and move on in a positive light. There is much to ponder and discuss within these pages, and despite the heavy themes, the overall message of the book is one of hope, love, and compassion.

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Source: Purchased
Rating: ★★★★☆

But I do know there is no justification. No possible rationalization for what the Nazis did, for what civilian Germans permitted and encouraged to happen.

And yet: you. Here you are. You have the temerity to sit in my home, at my table, with your lights and your cameras and your questions and your historical credentials. You dare to seek some explanation. You dare to record the stories of the butchers and those who abetted them. You dare to seek some exoneration of a people who committed wholesale slaughter of an entire race!

(from Those Who Save Us)

Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us focuses on a broken relationship between a mother and daughter who lived in Weimar during World War II. The book centers on Anna Schlemmer, who has spent 50 years in silence about her wartime experiences. Her daughter, Trudy, who was just a baby during the war, remembers only bits and pieces of her life then.

The novel opens upon the death of Anna’s husband, Jack, the American soldier who married Anna shortly after the war and brought her and Trudy to Minnesota. Trudy, a professor of German history, does her duty in caring for her mother, but the distance between them is palpable. Her unanswered questions and desire to understand her mother’s wartime choices prompt her to take on a project in which she interviews Germans about their experiences during the war, including how they survived and what they knew about the Nazi atrocities.

Trudy has long been haunted by a photograph she found in her mother’s drawer as a child: what looks to be a family photo of Anna, Trudy, and an SS officer. The truth behind the photo is revealed over the course of the novel, which shifts back and forth between Anna’s wartime story and 1997 as Trudy interviews subjects for her project and navigates her mother’s coldness and silence.

What struck me most about this novel was how the war resulted in a sense of guilt and isolation for both Anna and Trudy. Anna stands by her actions during the war, both good and bad, as a means of survival and protecting her daughter, though the shame and the lingering trauma closed her off to both her husband and daughter. Trudy carries guilt based on her interpretation of the photo, and her mother’s refusal to revisit the past has left her without a support system. It was interesting how both of them carried the weight of guilt, though Trudy was too young to remember the war.

Those Who Save Us is a rare instance for me in which both the past and present aspects of the novel were fascinating. Although it is hard to connect with Anna and Trudy, as they keep themselves at arm’s length even from each other, Blum enables readers to understand their motivations and empathize with them as the story unfolds. Blum also doesn’t shy away from detailing the violence of war, and there were several times that I had to put the book down and calm my emotions. I had hoped for more resolution in the mother/daughter relationship at the end, but Blum stays true to their characters while giving them and readers a sense that healing is on the horizon. Those Who Save Us is a well-crafted, thoughtful novel that takes on some pretty ambitious subject matter but handles it with care and without assigning blame.

Serena and I featured Those Who Save Us as the June/July readalong on War Through the Generations. Our discussions can be found here (beware of spoilers): Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4. Stay tuned for an interview with author Jenna Blum, which also will be featured on War Through the Generations sometime soon.

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Source: Review copy from HarperCollins
Rating: ★★★★★

For here, in this battered and stubbornly beautiful city, where death and destruction fell from the skies night after night, she had finally found a home. Here was the one place in the world where she truly belonged. And that alone, she decided, was reason enough for thanksgiving.

(from Goodnight from London)

I really enjoyed Jennifer Robson’s trilogy set around the Great War (check out my reviews of Somewhere in FranceAfter the War Is Over, and Moonlight Over Paris), so when I saw that her next book was set during World War II, I knew I had to read it — and I was not disappointed! Goodnight from London is the story of American journalist Ruby Sutton, who arrives in London in 1940 to cover human interest stories for Picture Weekly. She left behind a lonely life in New York to pursue her career, and she soon comes into her own with the help of her new friends, editor Kaz, photographer Mary, and the secretive Captain Bennett.

Ruby believes she will bring an outsider’s perspective to her stories, which are being sent back to her New York weekly as “Dispatches from London,” but it’s not long before London feels like a real home to her. She endures the Blitz along with everyone else, finding comfort in Londoners’ ability to “keep on keeping on” even after they’ve lost everything but their lives. Robson follows Ruby over the course of the war as she finds love and friendship and matures as a writer and a person, forcing herself forward even as the war and her past catch up to her and threaten her newfound happiness.

I loved Goodnight from London, especially its plucky heroine, Ruby (who was inspired by Robson’s grandmother), and her determination to make something of herself no matter what. Robson has created a strong supporting cast of characters as well, especially in the sweet but mysterious Bennett and his charming godmother, Vanessa. Robson beautifully sets the scene of London during the Blitz, making readers feel like they are truly accompanying Ruby as she seeks out the good in the midst of so much destruction and is brave enough to move closer to the action in order to understand the importance of sacrifice, not only by the soldiers, doctors, and nurses but the everyday person as well.

Robson is a true storyteller, whose passion for her subject matter shines through in every page of the novel. If I hadn’t been so busy and distracted lately, I likely would’ve devoured this book in one sitting. Goodnight from London is an emotional tale for sure, and while I enjoyed the romantic aspects of the story, I’m glad Robson kept Ruby, her courage and determination, and her wartime experiences at the forefront. Definitely a contender for my Best of 2017 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for Goodnight from London. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received Goodnight from London from HarperCollins for review.

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Serena and I are hosting a readalong in June for the 2017 WWII Reading Challenge on War Through the Generations. Even if you are not participating in the challenge (and even if you’ve already read the book), we encourage you to join us for our group discussions of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. The discussions will be posted on War Through the Generations each Monday, from June 12-July 3.

For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer. Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

Here is the read-a-long schedule, with discussions here on each Monday.

  • June 12: Discussion of Prologue – Chapter 15
  • June 19: Discussion of Chapters 16-29
  • June 26: Discussion of Chapters 30-45
  • July 3: Discussion of Chapters 46 – End

We look forward to reading what sounds to be a fantastic book, and hope you will join us!

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Source: Personal library

“Father needs me at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”

(from All the Light We Cannot See)

Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is set during World War II and alternately tells the stories of two teenagers caught up in the confusion and chaos of war. The novel follows Marie-Laure from her days as a young girl accompanying her father to the museum where he worked in Paris to her life in the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where she lives with her great uncle. Meanwhile, readers watch Werner as he grows up in an orphanage in a mining town in Germany with his younger sister, where his love of learning takes him on a journey from fixing and building radios to attending a school for the Hitler Youth to designing and using systems to weed out the resistance.

The novel opens in 1944 as the Americans drop incendiary bombs on Saint-Malo, forcing both 16-year-old Marie-Laure and 18-year-old Werner to separately fight to survive. Doerr takes readers back and forth in time, gradually peeling back the layers of each story and making readers anxious to see how they will converge. There is so much depth to this novel, from the legend of the Sea of Flames to the mini-cities Marie-Laure’s father painstakingly creates to help her navigate the world after she loses her sight, from the haunting voice of the French professor that Werner’s first radio picks up to the brutal lessons he learns as he joins the military to achieve his dreams and avoid a bleak future in the mines.

Doerr’s prose is beautiful and haunting as he portrays two characters who are thrust into impossible situations, alone, at such a young age. It was both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Marie-Laure and Werner navigate their strengths and weaknesses amid so much terror and helplessness and evolve from those experiences. I was able to connect with both characters at various points in their journeys and feel their emotional turmoil, knowing that, given the setting and time period, the ending would be bittersweet at best. All the Light We Cannot See is a strong contender for my year-end roundup of the best books I read this year.

Serena and I hosted a six-part readalong of the book at War Through the Generations. Here are the links if you’d like to read and/or participate in a more in-depth discussion of the book, but beware of spoilers: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, and Week 6.

Disclosure: All the Light We Cannot See is from my personal library.

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Source: Review copy from William Morrow

Once you knew–really knew–of the women and children being shot in the woods, of the shower rooms constructed for the sole purpose of killing, how could you not act? But now, here was the obvious reason she had repressed: the cost. If the plan failed, all that she cherished would be lost.

(from The Women in the Castle)

After her husband and best friend are executed for their roles in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, Marianne von Lingenfels acts on her promise to protect the wives and children of their fellow resisters. In 1945, Germany is in shambles, and the Nazi atrocities are being brought to light, forcing ordinary Germans to acknowledge their nation’s defeat and guilt. Amid the ruins, Marianne is able to find her best friend Connie’s family — his wife, Benita, a victim of the Red Army’s occupation of Berlin, and six-year-old son, Martin, who was sent to a Nazi re-education home after the failed plot. She eventually finds Ania and her two sons at a displaced persons camp, and along with her own children, Marianne establishes a new family with these women in the crumbing Bavarian castle that belonged to her aristocratic husband’s family.

Marianne is the leader, focused on honoring the memory of her husband and his co-conspirators and ensuring that the women and children understand exactly what their husbands and fathers died for. Benita, naive peasant girl, was sheltered from her husband’s work in the resistance, which makes her more determined to break free from the past and try to find happiness in the years after the war — a desire that puts her at odds with Marianne’s need to record the history of the German resistance. Ania is quiet and capable, becoming the caretaker of the women in terms of food and necessities, but her secrets eventually catch up to her.

The Women in the Castle is among the best World War II novels I’ve read and definitely will have a place on my Best of 2017 list. Jessica Shattuck uses these women, with their different upbringings and experiences before, during, and immediately after the war, to explore what it means to resist, how to rebuild their country and their lives amid a sense of hopelessness and guilt, and how to balance the need to remember the past and be held accountable for their actions with the need to live again. Shattuck paints a complex portrait of women with admirable strengths and deplorable weaknesses.

The novel moves back and forth in time, adding layer upon layer to each of the women’s stories, unraveling their secrets and surprising readers along the way. I grew attached to these women and found at least some small way to connect to them, which made it easier to understand their reasoning for — but not condone — the choices they made in a tumultuous period in history.

The Women in the Castle is a novel that makes you really stop and think. How does one live with the choices they made during wartime, whether to follow orders and commit atrocities, resist, or ignore the evidence of their nation’s crimes? Is it possible, should it even be possible, to move forward without the weight of these crimes, or their failure to do what was right, hanging over them? When is it okay to say it’s time to stop living in the past and move on?

Shattuck follows these women over decades as they forge new bonds and new lives, are forced to acknowledge their actions and inaction, and realize the war follows them in everything they do. It’s a fascinating study of human nature and the will to survive, both the war and its repercussions. If you plan to read at least one World War II novel this year, I highly recommend The Women in the Castle.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Women in the Castle. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Women in the Castle from William Morrow for review.

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Source: Review copy from Crown
Rating: ★★★★★

Everything was black in the moonless night, the blackout rules forcing all the light out of the world. But with a cautious smile, I realized that there are no laws against singing, and I found my voice becoming louder, in defiance of this war.

In defiance of my right to be heard.

(from The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir)

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is an impressive World War II homefront novel set in 1940 in the village of Chilbury in Kent, England. Jennifer Ryan tells the story in journal entries and letters from the points of view of Mrs. Margaret Tilling, a woman left alone with her thoughts after her only son goes off to war; Miss Edwina Paltry, the village midwife who takes on shady jobs for the right price as a means of atoning for her past mistakes; Kitty Winthrop, the 13-year-old daughter of the menacing Brigadier who longs to be a singer and is waiting for the dashing RAF pilot Henry to marry her someday; Venetia Winthrop, Kitty’s older sister who uses her beauty to her advantage and sets her sights on a mysterious artist; and Sylvie, a 10-year-old Jewish refugee living with the Winthrops who holds tightly to a secret.

The novel opens with a funeral and a note from the vicar indicating that the village choir will be disbanded now that all the male members have gone to war. However, under the guidance of the new choirmistress, Prim, the women of the village form the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, using their voices to both lift up and comfort each other and their fellow villagers during the chaos of war. The women of the choir forge new friendships, uncover secrets, fall in and out of love, and find strength in themselves and each other as the war begins to take its toll.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, but I was immediately intrigued by these women and the life of the village. Some of the women were resistant to the changes brought about by the war, while others viewed the absence of the men as an opportunity to take charge, see the needs that must be fulfilled, and move forward. Where the novel shines is in Ryan’s ability to give each of the women a distinct voice and show their evolution within their diaries and letters. Although some of the plot lines may have been a bit overly dramatic or far-fetched, Ryan made them work, and I was swept up in the gossip and the rivalries of the inhabitants of Chilbury.

I really enjoyed The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, especially for Ryan’s skill in painting a portrait of a society in flux. Even when the bombs begin to fall and the losses begin to pile up, the narrative never gets too heavy and is never devoid of hope. I couldn’t help but love these women and root for them despite their flaws and misguided actions. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a quick and pleasant read, and I found myself wishing there was another installment that showed how these women fared in the latter years of the war.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to participate in the tour for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir from Crown for review.

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