Those Who Save Us – Jenna Blum

Review (Amazon): For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.

Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.

Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

My Review (spoilers!):

Executive Summary: decent

I’ve expressed my general apathy toward WW2 (German-focused) books on here before. Yet somehow I keep reading them (because I foolishly take recommendations of them from people who love them). This one really is not bad, however it was my 3rd WW2 for 2016 (technically I finished it in ’17 but it was started in ’16 so I’m counting it). It wasn’t as great as The Nightingale, but it wasn’t as rotten as The Book Thief, so I guess that makes it solidly decent.

The book follows two intertwined stories–One of Anna and eventually her daughter Trudy in 1940s Germany, and another story in the present (late 1990s) of the mother and daughter in Minnesota. Despite that literary device being a bit overused in my opinion, the author did a good job with it and was able to freshen it up a bit with the modern story.

Trudy is a professor of German history. When her colleague and only friend tells Trudy about her upcoming project to interview Jews who lived through WW2, Trudy has a revelation that she wants to do the same with German nationals. She wants first person stories about how people who lived through such atrocities could turn a blind eye to what was going on around them. She also secretly has a desire to learn about her own past since her mother has closed off everything about that time.

Anna grew up in Weimar in Germany (not the town in Texas that has really good fried chicken). Her mother died and she took over the job of taking care of her father who early became a Nazi. He was a social climber and wanted to find Anna a good pure husband. Unbeknownst to him, she had other plans. Anna falls for the town doctor, a Jew, and eventually hides him in their home. Anna’s father is away much of the time and she visits Max in the secret closet. Her father inevitably finds out and turns Max into the Gestapo. Anna at this point is pregnant and retreats to a sympathetic Mathilde, the town baker.

Mathilde keeps her hidden until Trudy is born and begins teaching her the craft–not just baking, but also smuggling food to prisoners at the nearby work yard where she collects and returns with their messages.  Mathilde keeps this up until she is eventually killed, presumably caught in the act, and Anna takes over. However, this is not to last either. A German officer, the Oberstrumfuhrer, takes interest in her. Anna makes the decision to encourage these advances to both protect her daughter and also feed them. She keeps up work at the bakery until there is no more ingredients left from which to make bread (although she is only feeding the Nazi soldiers at this point and is not taking any to the prisoners). The Oberstrumfuhrer is a man of some depth. While he is a horrible man in many ways, he does seem to generally like Anna and Trudy, bringing them chocolates and taking them on trips. Anna struggles with her decisions daily, but she doesn’t see another option. When finally the American arrival is inevitable, the Oberstrumfuhrer leaves and heads for Argentina, leaving Anna and Trudy in Weimar.

The Americans arrive, and one drunken soldier breaks into the bakery and tries to rape Anna. He is stopped by a superior officer, a Jack Schlemmer. He and Anna marry and they move to Minnesota with Trudy. Anna never really fits in with the locals in the small town, and she has so much emotional baggage from her time in Germany that she and Jack have a very broken relationship until he dies and Anna is put into a home which she is eventually kicked out of when she comes to live with Trudy.

Trudy continues doing interviews. In one, she is bamboozled by a Jew who has called her for an interview only to berate her entire project denouncing all Germans for what they have done. However, Trudy is drawn to this man and feels a connection to him. She tells him that she is the daughter of an Oberstrumfuhrer as she has seen the picture of him, Anna and her in her mother’s cigarette case. He tells her that his brother was shot in the head point blank by a Nazi soldier just to make a point. They date for a while, Trudy falling in love with him, but it is not to work. Her mother secretly watches the interviews and Trudy has caught her watching the one of Rainer, but her mother will not agree to be interviewed and spills no information.

Another interviewee who reaches out to Trudy is a man named Felix who grew up just outside Weimar. Trudy acknowledges her birthplace and begins to listen more intently to his tale. He tells of how he was a bit of a scumbag–out to make money on the war. He bought people’s valuables in exchange for papers and ways out of Germany. Eventually he was caught and imprisoned. He tells Trudy about the bakery angels who would leave presents in the hollow tree and take their messages. He tells Trudy about a man named Max who was also in the camp and had a secret daughter with one of the bakery angels. At this point, Trudy, in shock, asks her camera man to stop the tape and asks Felix if he will come meet her mother. He agrees and while they are waiting for the camera man to pack up, Trudy asks what became of Max. Felix responds that Oberstrumfuhrer von Stuern hanged him and kicked away the chair.

When they get to Trudy’s, Anna still does not give away anything. She says she cannot remember ever seeing a murder at the prison while she was delivering food, although Felix later assures Trudy that it was indeed Anna who he saw there. He has lunch with Anna and when Trudy returns him to his place, he tells her that he would like to visit Anna again, and Trudy agrees that she thinks her mother would enjoy it. The book ends with Trudy in silent reflection.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good book. I enjoyed the premise of Trudy being a child in the war who grew up to be a professor of German history. I found the characters to be very well rounded and well developed and they felt very real, even the ones the readers didn’t know well. The only real downside is that…it’s hard to be very original on a German WW2 novel.

 

 

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review

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