Wednesday, November 12, 2008

At What Cost

The latest selection from my book group, Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum explores Nazi Germany and its aftermath from the perspective of a German mother and her daughter. It is a point of view not often considered -- that of the Germans who lived through the Nazi era.

Family secrets buried in the ruins of Nazi Germany form the basis of this page turner of a novel told in the voices of a mother and daughter, alternating between the present, in New Heidelberg, Minnesota, to the small town of Weimar near Buchenwald during World War II. Hardly the stuff of your typical mother/daughter relationship angst. Here, the post-war silence from the mother who survived the war precipitates the daughter, a professor of German history, to undertake a project interviewing ordinary German women about their roles during World War II.

As Charlie Lee-Potter writes, in The Independent:

This novel asks that nagging question: 'What would you have done?' Would you have helped the oppressed, would you have colluded with the enemy, would you have sold your soul to feed your child? Jenna Blum is good at asking questions. She spent four years as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation documenting the experiences of Holocaust survivors.
Likewise, Amy at Gather summarizes the novel:

What would you have done if you were an ordinary German citizen during World War II? Would you have risked your life to hide some Jews? Or turned them in? Would you have joined the Resistance? Or would you have just done whatever you had to do to survive? These are some of the questions posed in Jenna Blum's first novel, Those Who Save Us.

Anna Brandt is a cold, silent woman who never speaks of the past. In her view, the past is dead and it should be left that way. Her daughter Trudy has always known that her mother's American husband, Jack, isn't her real father. She knows that Jack married Anna at the end of the war and brought her and Trudy back to Minnesota with him. But who was her father? And why won't her mother tell her anything? The only clue Trudy has to her past is a photograph from when she was only a few years old. She is sitting on her mother's lap and an SS officer is standing behind them. Was the SS officer Trudy's father?

Trudy is now a professor of German History and one of her Jewish colleagues is involved in a project recording the experiences of Holocaust survivors. Perhaps out of guilt over her own German heritage, or perhaps because she has so many unanswered questions, Trudy decides to undertake her own project that researches the point of view of ordinary Germans during the war. She felt their unique perspective was going to be lost if it wasn't documented and she wanted to know. What did the people do? Did they know what was happening to the Jews? Did they feel guilty or do anything to stop it?

As the novel's title suggests, explorations of the relationship between the saved and the savior are also an important aspect of the novel. Anna saves Trudy's father, a Jewish Doctor, for a time, by hiding him in a crawlspace in her home. She later is saved by a woman who owns a bakery, who works for the Resistance, and they both smuggle food to Jews imprisoned at Buchenwald. Later, she and Trudy are saved by an SS Officer, who helps them survive the War, then later by an American soldier, who likely saved Anna from punishment as a collaborator with the Nazis.

The interspersing of good and evil serve to highlight the complexities in distinguishing them, especially in difficult times, like war. Although she is repulsed by the SS Officer, Anna nonetheless realizes that "We come to love those who save us." The loss of her lover and the guilt over her relationship with a SS Officer no doubt causes her to close herself off from the past. However, it is unfortunate that she mainly acted to save her daughter Trudy, yet her later silence about the past served to alienate them through most of Trudy's adult life. She cannot overcome her shame, even when it means that her daughter is left believing that she was fathered by a Nazi, rather than revealing the truth.

This book generated the most discussion we've had in a long time during our Sunday morning book group meeting. After our catch-up chit-chat, we usually have a short conversation about the book, then verve into a discussion of politics and kids. However, we had a lively discussion of the issues raised by this book, such as how far we would go to save ourselves and our family, as well as the risks we would take to save others.

For another review, see The Wrinkled Page and an interview with the author, see Murphy's Law.

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