Review by Adrina Palmer
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel, perfect for fans of “The Nightingale,” “Schindler’s List,” and “All the Light We Cannot See,” about twelve-year-old Hannah Rosenthal’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.
The back of the book “The German Girl” by Armando Lucas Correa, did little to entice me to open the pages. But what am I going to do? I’m a book reviewer, so I opened the book, and a magical thing happened. The first sentence floated off the page and smacked me. I was hooked, but a few issues in the book keeping me from giving this novel full marks. There is too much space between the information provided and what the audience needs to know. The way the family members process relationships does not always feel genuine. Another issue is seeing from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl who has a tendency of referring to people as she sees them at that moment, which causes conflict for the reader trying to maintain who is who.
Two adolescent girls, tied by blood but separated by time, discover their mutual losses and experiences force them into a familiarity not known by strangers. Hannah is just twelve years old when Germany reached the zenith under the thumb of Hitler in 1939. Her family has too much tainted blood and must leave the only home and German last name they have always known behind, in search of a new country that will accept their impure blood. Impure. Dirty. Filthy. But how can any of these words describe Hannah, the epitome of a German girl? Blond hair, blue eyes, and the last name Rosenthal, create a deceptive exterior for Hannah. The Ogres, how she refers to the Nazis, cannot tell she is Jewish by her appearance alone and often questions her association with her very Jewish friend, Leo.
Leo does not walk; he runs everywhere. His fast pace only slowing long enough to grab Hannah’s hand as he will never leave her behind. They have their future’s mapped out in the mud next to an obsolete Jewish shop, destroyed by the Ogres. They will follow their parents to Cuba, the only country willing to take in those with impure blood, where they can grow old together, in the heat of a tropical island, with their children, and forget their heritage. Both families leave behind their homes, wealth, furniture, and lives to board the St. Louis, a ship that will transport them to their new lives, far away from the war torn country trying desperately to clean the impure from the pure.
Hannah, along with her parents, Max and Alma, board the elegant ship along with 933 other passengers, including Leo and his father. The captain is dedicated to ensuring a new life for every passenger, and providing an escape from the horrors already befallen the families. The ship serves sumptuous meals and provides lush living quarters and entertainment to mask the reality of what life has become for those with Jewish ancestry fleeing the only country they have ever called home. Notices soon arrive on board; the Cuban president has changed his mind. He does not want the tainted blood of the passengers to enter his country, despite having agreed to provide a place for those rejected from their old country. Only thirty passengers may leave the ship, the rest must return to war-torn Europe for refuge.
Anna lives alone with her reclusive mother in the present year 2014, in New York City. Every night she speaks to the photo of her father on her bedside table. Her mother still believes her husband will return unscathed by the terrorist attack of September 2001. His life was so quickly taken, he was unaware he would soon be a father. A package arrives for Anna, filled with pictures of an old ship, the St. Louis, and a young girl on a magazine cover with a startling family resemblance. Hannah had found her nephew’s family and wanted to give them the past and a heritage. Determined to find out about her father’s background, Anna and her mother fly to Cuba to meet her great aunt, her namesake.
Hannah tells the story of her past, which still haunts her, to Anna. She tells of a baby brother born, of a father left to die in a concentration camp, of a mentally fragile mother, and servants who became her only solace. She tells of how her only love, Leo, betrayed her, and a nephew she raised. Hannah knows where Anna came from and provides roots for a child left without a father. The two bond over the tragedy of loss mutual love before Hannah finds her way to leave the past behind.
“The German Girl” tells the story often lost in the telling of the Holocaust. Few have heard of the ships desperate to deliver the Jews to countries far away from their certain demise. Few are aware of the Cuban president who treated the refugees wretchedly and of the coming events in the country, that were all too familiar to the survivors. Told alternately through the eyes of Hannah and Anna, this poignant story forces the audience to empathize with those torn apart by Hilter’s regime. The sweet story of Hannah and Leo, and a promise left for eighty seven years, is almost unbearable, as most lost love stories are.
The most agonizing aspect of Hannah’s story is despite a new life she is unable ever to move on. She spends seventy-five years reliving the decisions of her parents and the losses of her people. Very few people enter her life and stay, leaving her alone in the crowded city of Havana. Only one other romantic love comes into her life, but he too leaves torn by tragedy. Even the salvation of a new life could not save Hannah or her family, and the desire trickled down into each subsequent generation with the stain of the Rosenthal curse. Hannah’s story needs to be heard.
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