The last book I reviewed is The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s sensitive and moving collection of short stories about how one’s identity as a refugee has long shadows, that often have effects across generations. Armando Lucas Correa’s The German Girl , explores a similar theme through a fictionalized narrative of a real-life incident.
On May 13, 1939, The SS St Louis sailed from Hamburg to Havana, with 900 passengers, most of then Jewish Germans fleeing the Nazis. They docked at Cherbourg to pick up an additional 37 passengers, also Jewish. All of them had landing permits for Cuba, however, the then Cuban President invalidated the permits and ordered the vessel off Cuban waters. Only 28 passengers were permitted to disembark. The Captain of the ship, Captain Gustav Schroeder tried his best to find a non-German port that would accept these refugees, but the US and Canada both refused. Eventually Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, accepted them. Shortly thereafter, Germany declared war, and except for the passengers taken in my Great Britain, all of the others suffered greatly from it.
It is this tragedy that forms the backdrop for The German Girl.
The plot follows two POVs–the first is of Hannah Rosenthal, a 11 year old girl in Nazi Germany. Hannah’s parents are well-off financially, but her friend, Leo Martin and his father are not. When the pressure increases, the parents decide to leave Germany, and that is how Hannah, her family, Leo and his father come to be among the passengers on the St Louis. When Cuba reneges on its promise to let the passengers disembark, only Hannah and her mother are allowed entry into Cuba, and she loses some of the most important people in her life. Her life in Cuba, and growing up in the midst of the Cuban revolution are all part of the book.
The second POV is that of Anna Rosen, also a 11 year old living in New York. After her father’s demise on the fateful attack on the Twin Towers, her mother becomes increasingly despondent and Anna often has to take care of her. Anna wishes to know more about her father, who she has never met, but all her mother knows is that he was raised by an aunt who lives in Cuba, Aunt Hannah. When Anna receives a box of photographs from Hannah, she is intrigued, and she travels to Cuba to meet Hannah in the hope that she will find out more about her father.
So much of the beauty of this book comes from the exploration of relationships. Both Hannah, and Anna care deeply for their fathers, and have to deal with mothers who care, but are unable to overcome their personal pain. Hannah has a wonderful friend in Leo, as does Anna in Diego. But where Hannah is in the process of letting go of the past, Anna is eager for memories. Both our heroines are perceptive, sensitive beings, and one cannot help but be charmed by them. It is essentially a coming-of-age tale, of two girls, separated by time and geography.
It is to the author’s credit that he has managed the write the delicate balance between despair and hope with such grace. The reader becomes intimately aware of the heartaches of both Hannah and Anna. And yet, he leaves us with a note of hope for both of them. What did break my heart was reading the story of the St Louis, and the complete list of passengers who were on it, which the author has provided at the end of the book. It is such a fitting tribute to these unfortunate souls, that their story, or at least a part of it, has been told.
I could draw comparisons to The Diary of a Young Girl or to The Book Thief, but that would be too obvious, and not exact. The German Girl has a strong identity and message of its own. However, those who enjoyed reading these books, may also find this book to their taste.
The German Girl raises questions about prejudice, hate and cruelty. When the time comes, will we be kind and accepting, or will be be swept up by the atmosphere around us and add to the suffering of those who are already bearing scars? History always repeats itself, and with the current political climate being what it is, The German Girl is a powerful reminder that there are consequences to hatred.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Did you know about the tragedy of The St Louis? Let me know in the comments!
FTC disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
Author Bio: http://www.armandolucascorrea.com/bio-1.html