I'm a freelance writer who lives on the Bellarine Peninsula. I enjoy finding new things to see and do in the beautiful area that I live in.
Published April 24th 2012
There are thousands of accounts of the Jewish Holocaust floating around- some of them fictional, most of them autobiographical, all of them heart-wrenching.
I have read quite a few of them throughout the years, both for school and in my own spare time, and each has provoked feelings of remorse and devastation in me for the horrible things that each person had to go through in order to survive.
This novel, The English German Girl, written by Jake Wallis Simons, is fictional, despite the inclusion of several real-life people who aid the characters in their struggle to survive (and whose brief biographies are mentioned in the back of the book), yet it packs a powerful punch. If I hadn't picked it up from the fiction section of my local bookshop, I probably would have assumed that it was entirely autobiographical.
Having lived in Germany her whole life, along with her parents Otto and Inga, older brother Heinrich and baby sister Hedi, Rosa Klein has slowly begun to realise the differences between herself and her peers who are not of Jewish descent. As the years have gone by, she has seen a gradual decline in the way that the Jews are treated and as incidents of violence and intolerance grow more and more common, and her father loses his surgeon position at the hospital because of his background, Rosa begins to fear for her family's safety.
Her father, refusing to admit that his homeland believes in such autocratic Nazi nonsense, makes no attempt to withdraw his family from the country. He tells himself that it will all pass over soon, when the Germans come to their senses. However, their sense of security soon begins to shut down, as they are forced to move from opulent surrounds into the squalor of a tiny apartment, and their once grandiose taste is reduced to the bitterness of having to wash other people's clothes for money.
Despite the massive downgrade on their standard of living, they are grateful to still be together as a family. But soon their lives are put into jeopardy and Otto has no choice but to reconsider his views.
With the family now following every arduous method they can in order to immigrate from the country, and with the walls closing in on them, Otto is finally able to secure passage to England- for only one of his children. By this point, Heinrich is too old to be considered, and the Klein's are hesitant to send their 7-year-old daughter to an unknown country, so Rosa is the obvious choice. With the limited English she has learnt at school, she can help her family secure working visas from England and help them to immigrate, escaping from the dangers they face in Germany.
Rosa is only fifteen-years-old when she is put onto a Kindertransport train from Berlin to England, with the fate of her family resting on her shoulders.
But when she arrives in London, she finds that her task is a lot harder than it first appeared, and with limited English language speaking skills, Rosa soon discovers that she may not be able to keep her promise to get her family to safety.
This novel was harrowing from start to finish- Rosa's journey from a naïve child, to an obedient teenager, to a determined woman is followed closely, along with all of the changes that occur around her as war becomes imminent. She is constantly forced to reinvent herself, changing her name as England's loyalties change from one country to the next (and never revealing that she is German- the enemy).
Readers can't help but sympathise with her plight, while at the same time, urging her on to just try and do her best. We can't help but feel the slow-building depression and desperation that forms within her as the story continues and her hopes are repeatedly dashed.
While she does experience some lovely moments- first love, a new career, important friendships- these are underlaid with a sense of foreboding, as we know that what she is experiencing is in direct opposition to the atrocities her family is facing in Germany. With very little news from her family after her move to England, Rosa feels at times as though she is in a bubble, isolated from those she loves, and feels extreme guilt that she is not suffering along with her family. Yet despite this, she feels that she has to take this opportunity, as her family would have wanted her to.
As I mentioned earlier, it would be easy to presume that this novel is based on real life. You can tell the author embarked on extensive research in order to make this read as realistically as possible.
This is an inspirational yet heartbreaking novel, and paints yet another portrait of the atrocities that people faced during the Holocaust, and the means that people had to endure to survive. While Rosa doesn't experience the camps, she has to face a different kind of imprisonment- one of a stranger in the unknown- that is at times just as psychologically traumatic.
While the ending is bitter-sweet, I highly recommend reading this novel.