The author gears her books to young adults between the ages of 12-17, but they are so well written about such interesting, often little known subjects that they are crossovers into the world of adult books as well. This is a book that is ageless. Although most everyone knows that Hitler was evil and murdered millions, few know about the lives of those that were forced to live under his rule, or the lives of the type of human being that could be persuaded to help and support him. Few view Nazis with kindness or sympathy, but this book puts a human face on those that tried to defy him, those that followed him blindly, those that were kind and tried to help others in spite of the risk to themselves, those that were simply selfish and thought only of themselves, and those that were simply caught in the maelstrom of events of that time.
The book takes place in 1945, very near the end of World War II. Hitler is retreating in the face of several defeats and a crushing Russian advance across the territories he controls. The book only covers a few months of that year, but it takes the reader far into the future, into 1969, when it ends, so the loose ends of the story can be resolved. This is historic fiction. The events surrounding the tale are real. The characters are not, but they are used to expertly illustrate the tragedies of that time period. Each character had a major turning point to awaken them from their stupor, from their mindless obedience to the madman and in some cases to their own insanity and obedience which was reinforced by their fear. The book tells the story of the war, but not from the more common side that is usually told, about the Jewish genocide. Rather it illustrates the plight of those under Hitler’s oppressive rule who were simply citizens of the countries that aligned themselves with him or were invaded by his forces successfully. Some welcomed and supported him. Some did not. The book lends insight into what made a supporter and what made a resister and what made a bystander who merely accepted the situation without supporting or rejecting it.
As the story develops, the reader is introduced to a ragtag group of travelers, of assorted ages, backgrounds and personalities. They are all trying to escape, all trying to reach a ship that will take them out of the path of the marauding Russians and Germans who have been laying waste to the lands they conquered and the people they encountered. Their trek and their voyage would be fraught with danger. At first, all of the characters had nicknames, but as the time passed, their identities became clearer. The nurse girl became Joana. The knight or thief as he was called, became Florian. The blind girl became Ingrid and the shoe poet, became Heinz. The wandering boy was Klaus. The Polish girl was Emilia. These characters were basically good. Then there was Alfred, the German sailor and Sorry Eva, the Viking. The author did a very good job developing these characters and illustrating just what made each of them tick.
Florian, a Prussian, had been an art restorer apprenticed to a German officer, Dr. Lange. He discovered that Dr. Lange was actually a monster who was stealing art and intending to betray him. Joana was a very compassionate nurse from Lithuania who had assisted a surgeon and made good use of her medical training. Ingrid had been separated from her aunt on a train platform. Then, helpless, when her aunt did not return, she was robbed of her luggage and ignored. She was now being cared for by the kind and thoughtful Joana. Klaus was a 6 year old little orphan boy who wandered out of the woods after his grandmother died, and he joined their troupe. Emilia was a 15 year old Polish girl traveling alone. She had escaped from the farm where she had been left by her father who believed that she would be safer there. However, that proved to be untrue. Alfred was a weak-minded German boy-soldier who followed Hitler to the letter. He had always been bullied and now found sanctuary in his delusions of grandeur. He pretended to write letters about his heroism, fighting for his Fuhrer, to a neighbor girl he had been very fond of who had spurned him. Her name was HanneLore, and she had good reason. Eva was rude and selfish. She thought of herself as superior and more important than the others. She was a big woman who did not want to allow anyone but Germans into their group. She worried only about her own safety and did not concern herself with the hardship of others. Heinz was my favorite character. He was a simple, kind-hearted shoemaker who kept the little group together with his good and calm counsel. He had found new meaning in his life as his love for little Klaus grew. Each of these characters harbored a secret.
This is an important book because it showed that those not directly persecuted by Hitler also had something to fear. It showed the sensitive, human side of these people. They too, suffered. All of the characters were haunted by their own personal fear, guilt, shame, hate and often their memories. Did they deserve to endure the hardships their apathy helped to create? Were Germany’s and Russia’s soldiers only doing their duty when they behaved with brutal cruelty? Could any of them really have been ignorant about what was happening to the victims of the war? Where did they think the millions of people simply disappeared to without their belongings and their treasured possessions? Why did they plunder the victims homes? Were these people, who were perhaps merely followers, actually guilty also of crimes against humanity? Did they have any other choice but to follow their occupiers or their leaders?
In the name of the Motherland, the Soviets were barbaric and in the name of the Fatherland, the Germans were blind brutes committing even more savage and horrific acts. War is ugly and so are the spoils of war. Young girls and women were raped and tortured, villages were plundered, homes were burnt to the ground, supplies were stolen, and the people were left to freeze, starve, suffer and die. They were forced to make impossible choices, to save one child and sacrifice another. Yet, the man they followed, Hitler, had done the same and more to his innocent conquests, victims who had done nothing. Fate had simply been unkind to some who were born with a disability or who were homosexual or emotionally disturbed. Others were simply members of a religion he rejected and a genetic structure he found inferior to his own.
There are so many untold stories about the war years and this is an important one. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed trying to escape the terror of war on land and on the high seas. It is easy to think of them as innocents, but, sometimes, I still wonder about them. If they were complicit by not fighting back against the forces of evil, by turning a blind eye to what was occurring around them, were they truly innocent?
hey truly innocent?