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Anxious to avoid being accused of "bumming a ride on the back of the Holocaust" as he describes it, Jake Wallis Simons, author of "The English German Girl", writes from the point of view of Rosa Klein who, at the age of fifteen, leaves Berlin on a train bound for England in the hope that, once there, she can find an escape route for the rest of her family. It's an interesting viewpoint because the subject of the 'Kindertransports' is one that's rarely encountered in fiction, in spite of there being so much literature around the Second World War and the fate of the Jews.
We meet the Klein family in the mid 1930s: father Otto is a successful surgeon who, as the book opens, is summoned to his superior at the hospital to learn that from now on he'll only be allowed to carry out clerical work. One Saturday morning when Rosa goes alone out to buy pastries for breakfast the assistant in the baker's shop gives her a pin brooch, a curious thing, with crooked angry looking arms; when her parents see what she's clutching they tell her she mustn't go out alone any more. Life becomes tougher for the Klein's; their landlord wants them out of their apartment, a new law says that it is illegal to rent property to Jews but Otto manages to keep a roof over their heads by agreeing to an extortionate rent increase. Eventually Otto loses his job and becomes a teacher at the Jewish school.
At first the family soldier on believing that life can't carry on like this forever; this dogged faith that things will improve is one of the most tragic elements of the story. There can't be anyone who doesn't know where this is heading but that doesn't diminish the horror of it all. What particularly shocked me was the long, drawn out nature of the degradation of Germany's Jews; how families like the Klein's managed to keep going is anyone's guess. The family throw themselves into finding a way out of Berlin, spending all their waking moments queuing at foreign embassies and writing letters to distant relatives looking for someone to sponsor them and provide a lifeline.
Finally an opportunity arises for one of the children to leave on one of the transports arranged by a Jewish refugee organisation. Heinrich is too old, Hedi too young to perform the necessary enquiries from England to secure passage for the rest of the family: Rosa it must be. With just a single suitcase Rosa says goodbye to her family, promising to do all she can to re-unite the family.
Rosa arrives just in time. A few days later war is declared and Rosa's hopes of having her family join her in England evaporate. All she can do is pray for a speedy end to the war. Gradually she settles into life with the Kremers, unfamiliar distant relatives and their teenage son Samuel who is about to be called up. Ironically, Rosa finds that the Kremers are more religious than her own family and she has to adapt to a Jewish lifestyle that is unknown to her; it is quite telling that many of those who perished simply for being Jewish by birth hardly identified with that religion at all.
"The English German Girl" is a book of two very distinct halves and both are pleasing in their own way but, in spite of some unexpected twists later on, I found the first half more successful. I've read extensively, fiction and otherwise, on the Holocaust but reading this I understood better how much the Jewish people suffered before the war even began. The persecution went on for years; people tried for years to find a way out all the while being ground down further. The writing is incredibly measured and controlled but you can't fail to be moved.
I found the second half rather over-researched and fussy. Just as the story might be reaching a resolution so several new elements are introduced and I found these to be at the expense of aspects of the story that were inadequately resolved. For the first few years of the war Rosa receives letters from her family. I would have liked to have known more about how they managed to survive in wartime Berlin. A baby who Rosa looks after when the train leaves Berlin suddenly appears with just pages to go; what of his war?
"The English German Girl" is, though, a moving and memorable read that opens a window on an aspect of the Second World War and the Holocaust that is often over-looked. The story and its characters are not easily forgotten.
Also published under the name Mary Bor at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk