I learned about The German Girl and its author, Armando Lucas Correa, on The Literary Life, a podcast hosted by Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of Books & Books in Miami, FL. The episode is worth the full listen. Correa's story is absolutely fascinating. Not to mention, he and Kaplan both have very soothing voices.
The German Girl tells the story of two young girls: Hannah, growing up in Berlin, Germany during the start of World War II and Anna, a young girl in New York City learning about her father's past. They both serve as narrators. The chapters alternate between their two points of view.
The book reels you in from the very first sentence, "I was almost twelves years old when I decided to kill my parents." If that doesn't grip you, I don't know what will!
When we meet Hannah, it's 1939 and Berlin, Germany is beginning to feel the real effects of Adolf Hitler's rise to power. Her family is Jewish and under more and more scrutiny each day. Eventually, Hannah's parents decide that they must leave the country and they book the family tickets on a ship bound for Cuba called the St. Louis.
In present day (2014 in the book), Anna is living in New York City with her mother. Her father passed away in the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 and she doesn't know very much about him. As she begins to press her mother for more information, that questioning leads them to take a trip to Cuba to meet her father's aunt, Hannah.
The book is structured in a way where the time hopping eventually meets up in the middle. That pacing makes you want to keep going and see how the two women will eventually come into each other's orbit. They finally meet when Anna and her mother travel to Cuba.
What I loved about this book, as compared to other stories set in World War II, was that it focused on the refugee experience, rather than the unthinkable atrocities committed by the Nazis. Last summer I read Lilac Girls, which puts an intense focus on the horrors that took place in concentration camps. The German Girl instead zeroes in on what it's like to decide to leave your job, your home and your community without knowing where you might end up.
There's a big chunk of that book that talks about the adjustment from life in Germany to life in Cuba. The way the passengers of the St. Louis tried to start over, tried to shake their old identity and old problems.
What makes this story even more interesting is that the St. Louis was a real ship. What is described here, in a fictionalized way, did actually take place.
Without giving too much away, the St. Louis was not able to disembark all of its passengers in Cuba as planned. In fact, most people weren't allowed to get off the boat.
On page 335, "The ship was therefore forced to head back across the Atlantic toward Hamburg. A few days before it arrived, Morris Troper, director of the European Committee for Joint Distribution, came to an agreement for several countries to take in refugees. Great Britain accepted 287; France, 224; Belgium, 214; and Holland, 181. In September 1939, Germany declared war, and the countries of continental Europe that had accepted the passengers were soon occupied by the armies of Adolf Hitler. Only the 287 taken in by Great Britain were safe. Most of the remainder of the former St. Louis passengers suffered the horrors of war or were exterminated in a Nazi concentration camp."
This book was beautiful. The stories of the two young women were raw and emotional. It really makes you think about what it would be like to have to uproot your life in an instant.
Fun fact: the book was originally written in Spanish and his been translated into English.
Correa is also the author of The Daughter's Tale, which I plan to check out next!
*Image courtesy of Off The Shelf.