Book review: Echoes of the past

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The events of World War II continue to affect both those who lived through those times and their descendants. Writers continue to mine the subject for what seems like an unending number of novels. What is amazing is that rather than being repetitious, many of these works are absorbing and moving. Two recent examples – “Karolina’s Twins” by Ronald H. Belson (St. Martin’s Press) and “The German Girl” by Armando Lucas Correa (Atria Books) – offer insights into the different ways people reacted to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews.
“Karolina’s Twins” opens in contemporary times, when Lena Woodward engages private investigator Liam Taggart and lawyer Catherine Lockhart (characters from Belson’s two previous novels) to help her discover the fate of the children of her best friend, Karolina. The twins disappeared during the Holocaust and, now that her husband has died, Lena is desperate to keep the promise she made to her friend decades before so she can die in peace. The majority of the novel tells the story of Lena’s life from her childhood in Poland through her experiences in a concentration camp. A second storyline is set in contemporary times, as Lena’s son, Arthur, tries to stop what he sees as Lena’s irrational obsession with finding the children, whom he believes never existed. The question becomes whether or not Catherine and Liam can discover the secret behind Lena’s tale before Arthur has his mother declared incompetent and prevents her from fulfilling her vow.
Belson does an excellent job balancing his exciting World War II story with that of the contemporary legal one. The novel’s conclusion is intensely satisfying, although perhaps not completely realistic. Yet, stranger stories of the Holocaust have proven true and Belson based his tale on the experience of a real person, even though the account of her life has been fictionalized. “Karolina’s Twins” is a moving reminder of how love and human connections kept people alive during the Holocaust and helped them create a new life afterward.
While Lena looks back at her life, the two main characters  in “The German Girl,” Hannah and her great-niece, Anna, begin their stories at age 12. Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life in Berlin, that is until the “ogres” (as she refers to the Nazis) began to rule Germany. The family is finally forced to leave Berlin and sets sail on the SS St. Louis. What makes leaving home less difficult for Hannah is that they are joined on board by her best friend, Leo, and his father. However, rumors that the ship won’t be allowed to dock in Havana begin to surface and Hannah worries about her family’s future if they’re forced to return to Europe. In 2014, Anna Rosen is concerned about her mother, who has had difficulty coping after the disappearance of her husband, Louis, years before. Anna is at first unsure what happened to her father, although it’s clear to readers that he died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Both Anna and her mother know little about Louis’ life before he moved to New York until a mysterious box of photos arrives from the now elderly Hannah, who lives in Cuba. Throughout the course of the novel, Hannah tells the story of her past, a journey that helps Anna understand her family’s heritage.
Although Hannah seems naive for a 12-year-old and parts of her story are difficult to understand at first, it’s well worth continuing because the writing is powerful and the story turns gripping and suspenseful. Even when the characters’ behavior is puzzling, particularly that of Hannah’s mother, Correa manages to make it believable by offering insights into what it means to be forced from one’s beloved homeland. “The German Girl” is also based on a true story and the author’s note at the end of the novel includes information about the fate of those who traveled on the SS St. Louis.
Both novels contain discussions about how belief in God can still exist in light of the way Jews were treated by the Nazis. Although none of the main characters are particularly observant, they still wrestle with questions of faith. Lena is influenced by a woman she met in a concentration camp who told her, “The Nazis have made every possible effort to eradicate Judaism. But as long as we stay true to our faith, they fail. They can take everything I have, but they can’t take my Jewishness. So, in the depths of the camp, I defy them. I defeat them.” Without wine, without candles and with only a small piece of bread, Lena and her friend celebrate the Sabbath. Hannah and her family, on the other hand, totally reject Jewish practice and refuse to be part of the Cuban Jewish community. The lesson Hannah learns is “that, to survive, it is best to live in the present. On this island [Cuba], there was no past or future. Your destiny is today.” Yet, Anna treasures the heritage given to her by her great-aunt and looks to carry it with her into the future. Each character finds her own way to understand, and live with, the events of World War II.