Title: The German Girl
Author: Armando Lucas Correa
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: October 18, 2016
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful debut novel, perfect for fans of Sarah’s Key and All the Light We Cannot See, the story of a twelve-year-old girl’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.
In 1939 before everything changed, Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. Her family moved in Berlin’s highest social circles, admired by friends and neighbors. Eleven-year-old Hannah was often taken by her mother for an afternoon treat at the tea room of the beautiful Adlon Hotel, both dressed in their finest clothes. She spent her afternoons at the park with her best friend Leo Martin. But, in an instant, that sunlit world vanished. Now the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; their fine possessions are hauled away, and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. The two friends make a pact: come what may, they promise to have a future together.
As Hannah and Leo’s families desperately begin to search for a means of escape, a glimmer of hope appears when they discover the Saint Louis, a transatlantic liner that can give Jews safe passage to Cuba. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart from Hamburg on the luxurious passenger liner bound for Havana. Life aboard the ship is a welcome respite from the gloom of Berlin—filled with masquerade balls, dancing, and exquisite meals every night.
As the passengers gain renewed hope for a bright future ahead, love between Hannah and Leo blossoms. But soon reports from the outside world began to filter in, and dark news overshadows the celebratory atmosphere on the ship; the governments of Cuba, the United States, and Canada are denying the passengers of the St. Louis admittance to their countries, forcing them to return to Europe as it descends into the Second World War. The ship that had seemed their salvation seems likely to become their death sentence.
After four days anchored at bay, only a handful of passengers are allowed to disembark onto Cuban soil, and Hannah and Leo must face the grim reality that they could be torn apart. Their future is unknown, and their only choice will have an impact on generations to come.
Decades later in New York City on her eleventh birthday, Anna Rosen receives a mysterious envelope from Hannah, a great-aunt she has never met but who raised her deceased father. In an attempt to piece together her father’s mysterious past, Anna and her mother travel to Havana to meet Hannah, who is turning eighty-seven years old. Hannah reveals old family ties, recounts her journey aboard the Saint Louis and, for the first time, reveals what happened to her father and Leo. Bringing together the pain of the past with the mysteries of the present, Hannah gives young Anna a sense of their shared histories, forever intertwining their lives, honoring those they loved and cruelly lost.
Thank you so much to Simon & Schuster for sending a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review, and for including me in the book blog tour.
Stunning, heart-wrenching and just plain beautiful. This book is a work of art! I have never read a historical-type novel that relates the past to the present.
Telling the story of the St.Louis through the eyes of a young German girl, readers are able to experience and capture just what they are feelings in the moment. The words and action are realistic and can be compared to real-life. Although the author does not come right out and tell us the event that is happening, it is implied with the switching of POV between Hannah in 1939, and Anna in 2014. By not telling readers the exact events that these girls have come face-to-face with, it leaves us wanting more and the passion for continuing reading the book.
With Hannah, we encounter how she is seen as impure, and how the war has changed her family and life, which is why she was on the St.Louis, to begin with. 937 Jewish passengers boarded this ship in hopes of escaping the wrath of Hitler, only to come to the fact that they were unwanted everywhere else. Only those few who were able to land in Cuba or Britain had their lives spared, the rest were sent to concentration camps, and we know what’s happens from there.
In Anna’s life, her father has passed but we are only told that he passed one week in September. Readers are left to infer as to what the accident was, although later in the book we are told. There is not much that Anna and her mother know about the father until a strange envelope arrives from the aunt that had raised Anna’s father. Determined to find out who her father was, this mother-daughter duo set forth on the adventure of a lifetime.
Without giving away to much, I absolutely loved this book. I found myself staying up late at night in order to keep reading. It gives a fictional twist on a real event, yet still keeps all the facts and real life events that had occurred. I highly recommend this book to everyone, as everyone will find something in it that that will love!
-Read On Darlings!
Now to go along with my review, I have a wonderful Q&A with the author himself. Enjoy!
What kind of research went into writing this story?
I acquired and consulted almost the entire bibliography that exists on the Saint Louis, the life of Jews in 1939 Germany and the life of Jews in 1930s Cuba from then until now. I had access to more than 1,000 original documents, from photos to letters to telegrams of the Saint Louis‘s journey to Cuba. It was a bit of an obsession that enabled me to reconstruct the two-week period before the passengers set off not knowing that Cuba, after having granted them permission to disembark — permits that cost them a small fortune— was going to deny them entry into the country.
I avoided speaking to survivors until after the novel was finished. I wanted the story to be my vision of history, told from my point of view. I knew that when I spoke to them my head would spin with other anecdotes and I would never finish the book. I met with survivors once the book was being edited. I traveled to Berlin, I walked the same streets I had Hannah and Leo wander through. I went to Hamburg. I took a boat at the same time, the same day, from the same place that the Saint Louis sailed from. I went to Auschwitz and of course I went to Havana.
How do you imagine The German Girl fitting in with the existing genre of Holocaust-related fiction?
The ramifications of the Holocaust are almost infinite. The Nazis devastated a generation and their actions will continue to affect much more to come. The Saint Louis was for many a forgotten story. Many don’t know about Cuba’s connection to the Holocaust. For me, it was so important that the story reflects a tragedy that took place in the 20th century, in the middle of the most civilized and democratic continent in the world. That entire world stood by and reacted only when it had no choice.
The German Girl is a historical novel about a terrible chapter of the Holocaust that has ramifications in today’s world. The fear of another; the fear of a refugee. Turning your head away is easy. Facing that fear is a challenge.
Who was your favourite character to write and why?
That’s a hard question. Hannah, of course, is a character who grows, evolves, and is the center of the story. In her, as well as in Anna, I see my daughter, Emma. It’s funny when I started writing the novel, both characters were younger. They grew up with me and Emma as well. Both girls in my novel were almost 9 years old when I started the book and they were 11 when I finished, just like my daughter is now. But I have a special place in my heart for Alma. She is a woman whose world collapses from one day to the next. The Alma who left Berlin is completely different than the Alma who arrives in Havana. Leo is also another of my favorites. I don’t want to spoil the story, but one of my favorites scenes is when Leo’s father, Martin, is with his son in his room aboard the Saint Louis in a setting no father even wants to think about. The men in my novel are almost ghost-like. They come and they go. Women have a very strong presence.
Why did you decide to have two timelines (1939 and 2014) instead of one?
I was clear on the fact that the story of the Saint Louis was going to be the backbone of the novel, but that Hannah and Anna were the common thread. The whole time I was writing, I saw my children in them and felt tremendous compassion for the parents. Hannah is part of the past. Anna is the present. It was necessary to have that perspective. It was a structure I had well-defined from the moment I began writing. It was like describing something terrible that we had all forgotten. It is the young characters Hannah and Anna, who are written as the life-blood of their families.
Why did you juxtapose the older generation so harshly against the younger generation?
I have a friend who told me I have no compassion for the two mothers: Alma and Ida. For her, they’re worthless, frivolous, selfish. She thinks it’s a reaction to my own nuclear family, which is made up of two dads and three children. But she’s wrong, it’s quite the opposite. The men in my novel are ghosts, the women are the ones who have a voice. Children of war are more mature, they have to fend for themselves. That was the idea. Hannah had her own war in Berlin. Anna had to take up the fight at home. It’s my way of making them mature. Both girls, in their own way, are girls defined by war. Losses crumble us, destroy us or make us stronger.
Why did you decide to have Hannah’s father’s death related to 9/11, another tragic historical event?
I haven’t spoken about this, but in reality, the novel started coming together with the death of the father on 9/11. In the beginning, it was a story of a family man, a Cuban, married to an American, who leaves home on Tuesday, September 11th never to return. His remains are never found, he simply disappeared. In that search for his past, in a search to reconstruct who that man was, I came upon the Saint Louis connection. My novel is about loss. All the characters in it, all of them, have lost someone. For me, 9/11 had a terrible impact. I was in the city. I saw how New York as we knew it had changed forever; we felt more vulnerable.
I wanted to bring together the Holocaust with 9/11. Tragedies become one. Perspective makes us more alert. Every time I speak to one of the survivors of the Saint Louis they say: It could happen again.