I requested this book from the publisher via NetGalley because its subject matter sounded interesting. It offered a different perspective of World War II, that of a child; she is the daughter of an SS soldier but she also has a Jewish grandmother. It was a bestseller in its original language, Afrikaans, and its Dutch translation. I had high hopes, but I was disappointed.
Gretl Schmidt is six when she escapes from a train headed for Auschwitz. She is rescued by Jakób Kowalski, a 21-year-old member of the Polish resistance. She is sheltered by his family for several years, but after the war, Jakób takes her to Germany so, as a German orphan, she can be taken to South Africa for adoption. There she becomes the adopted daughter of a wealthy Afrikaans family.
The novel is narrated from both Gretl and Jakób’s points of view so we see their views of events that they share and also what happens to them when their lives diverge. Fifteen is a recurring number: the novel covers 15 years (Gretl from age 6 to 21), and 15 years is the age difference between Jakób and Gretl.
There is no doubt that the author did considerable research. Unfortunately, sometimes the book readsmore like a Polish history lesson. Jakób and his brother repeatedly argue about whether Poland should join forces with Russia in order to fight the Germans. And there are sentences like, “University students organized a revolution against Stalinism. Workers demanded that the dethroned Gomulka, a politician with ties to the old Polish Worker’s Party, be reinstated as first secretary of the Politburo . . . ” Since my heritage is Polish, I am interested in Polish history, but sometimes it seemed that the book read more like non-fiction with plot being a secondary concern.
The one historical element about which I knew nothing is the fate of German orphans. This book details the adoption of German orphans with pure Aryan bloodlines by Afrikaners who had been supporters of Nazi Germany. The attitudes of the Afrikaners are clearly expressed: “’The Roman Catholic Church is the Catholic Threat against which we have to protect our faith. Anything that comes from Poland is Communist and part of the Red Danger, against which we must protect our country. And the Jews are non-Aryans, against whom we must protect our blood.’” And Gretl’s adoptive father also expresses his view of the Holocaust in clear terms: “’I agree with the people who believe that the so-called Holocaust never took place, that it was just a ploy by the Communists to vilify the Germans. . . . I don’t believe it for a moment. . . . that such a highly civilized, proud nation could descend to such depths.’”
Characterization is problematic. Gretl and Jakób are likeable because they have so many admirable qualities: both are strong and determined and loyal. The difficulty is that they seem to have no negative traits so they seem too good to be true. Sometimes characters do not behave consistently; Gretl’s adoptive father, for example, insists on a pure Aryan child and sees Jews as a threat, yet he married a woman whose grandmother was Jewish? Drobner, Jakób’s boss at one time, is “a hard-bitten Communist” and “a staunch Communist” yet he warns Jakób that he is being followed by the secret police: “’Take care. You don’t want the Party to find anything against you.’”
Gretl’s religious views are ever changing. She goes to Mass with Jakób: “And she knew God was waiting inside [the cathedral]. Much more than in the sweltering bushveld church, where the sun beat mercilessly through the uncovered windows and the organ wailed out the glory of God.” Then shortly afterwards, she says, “”I don’t feel ill at ease in the Catholic Church, because it’s so familiar to me. But I was confirmed in the Protestant church and that’s where I belong.’” Yet, earlier, it is stated that “She had been confirmed in the Catholic Church . . . “!? She has forgotten her Catholic confirmation? Her religious persuasion changes as often as her name: Magrieta, Gretl, Gretz, Griet, Grietjie.
The novel is a translation so perhaps that explains the static sentence structure: “She was relieved to hear the pickup. Her father had come to fetch her before dark. She went to meet him. He opened the door from the inside. She got in.” Dialogue seems unnatural: “’Your hair is long,’ he said. “Here, I brought you something.’” Exposition is also strange: “She found the standard five sums easy, because Jakób had already taught her most of the work. She had nearly forgotten what Jakób looked like. The only subject she found really hard was English.” Sometimes things are mentioned for no apparent reason; for instance, there’s a statement that “Horst Bremer’s football – big Horst, not the little one – landed in the cake” yet there has never been mention of two Horsts.
There is romance, but it didn’t ring true for me. The age difference is not necessarily a problem, but considering Jakób and Gretl’s initial relationship, the romance just doesn’t seem appropriate. Certainly, the happy ending will appeal to many readers, but it seems like plot manipulation to me.
Many readers will find this a heartwarming story about how love can conquer all: “their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.” Perhaps I am in the minority, but its many weaknesses make this a book I cannot rate highly.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.