It is 1945, Poland is being overrun by the Russians; Germany is losing the war. This story begins as a mass exodus of German refugees, from the countryside, is in progress. They are attempting to escape the army of “Ivan”, the Russian soldiers, as they advance, having defeated them. It is unlike most Holocaust novels since the theme concentrates on how the war affected four different kinds of characters from different backgrounds, each of whom experienced the effects of the war in their individual way, each fight for survival was unique..
We learn about Uri Singer, a 26 year old, German Jew, who has unbelievably escaped fairly unharmed, from a cattle car, by throwing himself out with the waste bucket. He is searching for his sister, Rebecca, but he has pretty much given up hope for her and his parents who had weakened already, before being “relocated”. He goes through many personas, often taking on the character and name of a soldier he has killed or a soldier who has brutalized Jews or attacked him or one he finds brutalizing others. Morphing in this way, from person to person, he has so far survived this war by being either a German or a Russian soldier, but certainly, not a Jew.
Then there is the 20 year old, red-headed Scottish Soldier who parachuted into a swamp and barely rescued himself before he was captured and became a German POW. In that capacity he was sent, with others, to work on a farm estate, in order to help the family with their sugar beet crop since their older sons were fighting in the war effort. When it came time to send the prisoners back, the respected owner of the estate, Rolf Emmerich, persuaded the German government to allow them to keep one, Callum, to continue to help them.
Anna Emmerich lives on the estate her family has owned for generations. Her mother is Prussian. She is enamored with Hitler and quite happy because when he invaded Poland, her farm, which was located on land that was given to Poland after WWI, was restored to its rightful place in Germany, once again. Her father, older brother and twin brother, are all engaged in Germany’s war. Anna is naïve and really doesn’t understand the reasons for, or the consequences of, this war. She is blind to the hardship, and living in the countryside, she is largely unaware of the atrocities being committed elsewhere, although there are rumors she has heard but does not believe. Theo, the youngest, at the age of ten, often has the clearest assumptions about the war, and in his simple innocence and understanding, draws conclusions some adults fail to see.
Cecile is part of a group of female Jewish prisoners who are transported like cattle from place to place or marched from factory to factory. The cruelty they witness and endure is unspeakable. She hopes to survive, but often, she despairs and life seems too hard to contemplate for herself and those around her. She, like other Jewish victims of the war, hopes to survive to bear witness against those who committed the atrocities, so that the world will know.
The story is carried forward by the way in which the lives of these characters intersect. The author has deftly woven the Aryan point of view with that of the Allies, the Jewish prisoners in the work camps and the POWs. Even the resistance movement is touched upon. Each experiences the brutality of this war in a different way, and how they interact with each other truly exposes the stupidity and futility of war.
I really thought that this book got under the skin of the Holocaust to expose its very core and to enlighten the world to the workings of the minds of madmen, and others, who are often simply ordinary men who are driven mad by circumstances, in order to survive another day. What are we humans capable of in different situations of real or perceived danger? How do we humans survive inhuman and brutal behavior in spite of its horror, so that we can continue to have a normal life afterwards. In the end, it offers hope. There are survivors in the least expected places. Is there guilt, shame? Is there forgiveness? Was it really possible that some people had no idea that anything so cruel was taking place, that they didn’t wonder where all the Jews and others had gone? Were they complicit or simply afraid to speak out? Inspired by a diary from World War II, this book will help to answer these questions.