I was deeply affected by this novel about the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany, told from the perspective of a young girl living in Leipzig. The story opens as a young Herta is rescued from drowning by her brother Karl’s friend, Walter. It’s a powerful opener and a metaphor for the coming years, as Herta is slowly drowned by the tidal wave of nationalism, and fascism that overwhelms her country and changes her life altogether. Fein was inspired to write the novel after researching her family’s Jewish roots and eventual flight to London. During her research, she started to wonder how a country and it’s people could go from being a reasonable and tolerant society, to committing such atrocities against their fellow human beings. So, to explore that idea, she decided to write her novel from the perspective of an ordinary German child, slowly becoming brainwashed by the evil ideology. It’s the childhood innocence of Herta that makes this book work so well and allows us to have empathy, despite her allegiances.
Herta’s father has recently taken control of the city newspaper and his reward is their beautiful new family home, their servants and improved status in Leipzig society. He came from humble beginnings to marry Herta’s elegant French mother, but is now quickly rising through the SS ranks. Her elder brother Karl is in the Hitler-Jugend and she really wants to do her bit to make for Vati and Mutti proud of her too. So she pledges her life to the Fuhrer, to serve him and his purpose, totally unaware of its evil extent. Fein slowly shows us his plans, and along with some of our characters we’re like the proverbial frog in tepid water. Without our luxury of hindsight, we too wouldn’t have recognised how much danger we were in, until it was far too late and we boiled to death. There are those characters who truly embrace Hitler’s philosophy and purpose like Herta’s Vati, and below that are various levels of denial, collaboration and fear. Even Vati, has a jumbled mix of motivations: feelings of inferiority from his background and in his marriage; relishing the status and power; a certain amount of brainwashing.
Hitler’s propaganda machine was in full swing within Germany, aided by the country’s financial struggle since the Great War. The Weimar Republic, the post WWI government, signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The treaty stated that Germany would take responsibility for the war, relinquish parts of its territory and pay reparations to the Allies. These policies caused huge social and economic hardship, a situation that the Nazis blamed on Jewish people and communists. A myth was even started that blamed the Jews for the signing of the treaty. Called the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend, this story blamed Jewish infiltrators in government for the difficulties the German people were facing, despite the fact that many German Jews had served faithfully in the war. Now, the German people were worn down by hardship and poverty and were looking for someone to blame. Hitler exploited these conditions to devastating effect and ordinary Germans were taken in by it. So, when Jewish neighbours and friends started being restricted or sent to work camps, only very rare, brave individuals stood up for them.
The scene when Herta first realises something is very wrong is at school, and her teachers call on Jewish children to stand up in assembly. The shock is seeing her brother’s childhood friend Walter, singled out for abuse and ridicule. Walter can’t be a Jew. He’s the Aryan ideal, blonde and blue-eyed. Besides which, when she was very small Walter saved her from drowning. He had been a constant presence at the house when they were younger. Now here he was being called terrible names and sneered at by their new teacher. Herta is terribly confused, she has been told that Jews look a certain way, and act in a different way to her, but she feels that she and Walter are both the same. Bravely, she runs after him when he is expelled from school and triggers a friendship of her own. A friendship that as she grows-up, develops into love. What possible future can this relationship have under Nazi rule? Then, as it becomes ever clearer that Hitler will not rest until Germany is cleared of Jews, both Herta and Walter will have to make sacrifices and the legacy of these decisions will last until they are both very old.
I don’t want to say any more for fear of ruining the story, but there were many points where I was moved to tears by the situation these childhood friends and young lovers, found themselves in. The displacement of families during WW2 was extensive and with no way of tracing each other, there would have been people who never saw each other again. I married into a Polish family, my husband died several years ago and my father and brother-in-law more recently. My mother-in-law got out of Warsaw as a little girl, escaping through the sewers. Her mother stayed. Her father ended up in America. The family never reunited fully, with Hana finding out her father had ended up in the Boston area of the USA. He had searched but never found either of them. He assumed they had died and later remarried, never knowing that his wife and child did survive and were now in England together. Luckily when Hana found her other family, she embraced them and they in turn remained close to their English family. I felt that the author had really done her background research, possibly with families like mine. I believed in her world and characters immediately.
The background of Leipzig felt homely and friendly, but then developed into this menacing place where you didn’t speak or even spat at the old couple across the street. The night where Herta looks for Walter, knowing that violent confrontations will be taking place in the Jewish quarter, is so frightening and made me feel physically sick. It’s where the threats and rhetoric become real and deadly. Herta is only ever truly free in nature, walking her dog on a Sunday morning and sometimes seeing Walter. It’s harder for someone to conceal anything themselves in open fields and usually Herta can walk freely, enjoying the air and the birdsong. This place represents normality whereas the city is madness, chaos and murder. The ending broke my heart, as we contemplate with Herta on what the world will be like to a new generation. Will it be peaceful with the effects of war far behind, or will the ripples of this hatred and violence be felt for several generations more? I was so moved by this and the epilogue. Some books stay with you for life and I think this will be one of mine.
Published by Head of Zeus 7th May 2020.