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Posts Tagged ‘holocaust’

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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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: Review copy from William Morrow
Rating: ★★★★★

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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Source: Review copy from MIRA
Rating: ★★★★★

I try to move forward again. My toes are numb now, legs leaden. Each step into the sharp wind grows harder. The snow turns to icy sleet, forming a layer on us. The world around us has turned strangely gray at the edges. The child’s eyes are closed, and he is resigned to the fate that has always been his.

(from The Orphan’s Tale)

I’ve long been a fan of Pam Jenoff’s World War II fiction, and her latest novel, The Orphan’s Tale, is among her best. The story is told alternately through the eyes of Noa, a 16-year-old Dutch girl whose relationship with a Nazi soldier leaves her pregnant and alone, and Astrid, an aerialist whose search for her family leads her to Herr Neuhoff, whose circus competed with her family’s and who takes her in when she is forced to flee Berlin. Their paths converge when Noa, stumbling upon a boxcar crammed with Jewish infants, takes a boy who reminds her of her lost child and runs off into a winter storm, where she is found by Peter, a circus clown and Astrid’s lover.

To protect the child, Noa is given the opportunity to train with Astrid on the flying trapeze. She has only a matter of weeks to perfect the act and soon finds herself acclimated to the circus lifestyle, much to the chagrin of Astrid, who has trained since she was a child and views the young girl as a rival. The women each have secrets, but they manage to bond over them and their love for Theo. But as the war comes to a head and the days of the traveling circus seem to be numbered, their futures become increasingly uncertain and their loyalty to one another is put to the ultimate test.

The Orphan’s Tale is the kind of novel that is both impossible and necessary to put down. It’s not often that I cry at the beginning of a book, but the opening scene with the boxcar of infants broke my heart, even more so when I realized it was based in fact. There were so many times that the book took a toll on my emotions. I wanted to keep reading because I needed to know what happened next, but I had to take a moment here and there to process what had occurred. I was unaware of the stories of hidden Jews in the traveling circus, so that aspect of the novel was fascinating, as were the descriptions of the circus acts and lifestyle. I especially loved how Jenoff used the first person point of view and alternated the chapters between Noa and Astrid, allowing me to understand and bond with both characters.

When Noa and Astrid were flying through the air, it was almost possible to forget that the war was going on around them, but Jenoff does a great job ensuring that readers feel the undercurrent of danger at every turn, from the surprise inspections of the circus by the SS to repeated warnings not to perform politically charged routines. Although the war is at the center of the novel, so are the themes of love, friendship, and sacrifice. The book hit me hard at a few poignant spots, and all the ugly crying I did emphasizes Jenoff’s ability to tell a powerful story. The Orphan’s Tale a strong contender for my Best of 2017 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to participate in the tour for The Orphan’s Tale. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Orphan’s Tale from MIRA for review.

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wwii-2017After a year hiatus, Serena and I are back to host the 2017 World War II Reading Challenge on War Through the Generations. Because our schedules are still extremely busy, we’re making it a stress-free challenge: no participation levels, read as little or as much as you want, and we’ll have an end-of-challenge giveaway.  More details on the challenge and how to link your reviews can be found here. Also, stay tuned for information on the three World War II readalongs we will be hosting at War Through the Generations in March, June, and September. We hope you’ll join us!

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heirlooms

Source: Review copy from Caitlin Hamilton Marketing
Rating: ★★★★☆

In the last light, the fields outside gleam. She must finish her letter, so she can post it at the next station. There is much she cannot write her parents and her sister Allegra about: not the round-ups in Paris, for instance, not her new awareness of the gradations and varieties of fear — one that numbs, another that makes her sharp and quick, certainly not Alain’s and Jean’s involvement with the Resistance.

(from Heirlooms)

Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms is a collection of interconnected short stories that takes readers to France, Israel, and the United States during and after World War II, following a single family as it navigates the fear, devastation, and loss of war and the evils of the Holocaust. The collection opens with Lise going to her sister-in-law’s deathbed, secretly pleased at the prospect of raising her niece, Eugenie, as her own. Then Lise and Eugenie, escape Saint-Malo to avoid having to register as Jews, and thus begins the family’s journey from place to place, leaving behind their lives, their belongings every time they are forced to flee.

Each story stands on its own, but putting them into a single volume makes for a richer, more profound tale that spans generations. Hall brings to life such interesting characters — from Simone, a woman in the Resistance who dares to dream of a future after the war, to Magda, a Holocaust survivor who takes great pains to hide the numbers on her arm — and it was fascinating to see how they were connected to the Latour family. The stories also touch on the immigrant experience, with Eugenie becoming “Genny,” and the ways in which a family’s history is passed on.

The story “Heirlooms” was particularly touching and reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in listing the things the family had lost to the war, from furniture and businesses to their language and their loved ones, and how secrets and desires cannot be left behind.

“Sometimes,” Lise will say, “I find myself wondering where something is–an owl brooch set with turquoise eyes from my sister or a particular square platter. And then I know: It is gone.” She shakes her head, laughs at her forgetfulness.

For the Latour family and others who have been displaced by war, the heirlooms they pass on are these stories of survival and their ability to rebuild their lives and move on, to even laugh again. I didn’t realize how attached I’d grown to these characters until I teared up on the last page, when the story comes full circle and acknowledges the sad fact of life that not all of the questions about our pasts will be answered. Heirlooms is a hauntingly beautiful tale of love and loss over the course of generations, touching upon what it means to be family and how the pains of the past can impact the future.

Disclosure: I received Heirlooms from Caitlin Hamilton Marketing for review.

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