The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa (Washington Square Press, 2016)
For each of the twelve million victims murdered during World War II there is a gutwrenching story to be told. I have read hundreds of memoirs, biographies, plays, and novels that recount the stories of the martyrs; some are exceptional, some are fair. The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa, an award-winning journalist, editor, author, and the recipient of several awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the Society of Professional Journalism, is a riveting read, largely because it tells a very unique story of a family's struggle to survive the Nazi regime.
Told from the point of views of two characters, Hannah, “the German girl,” and her great-niece, Anna, an American adolescent, we get parallel stories of coping with the loss of loved ones and the search for one's identity amid a chaotic world. In the final chapters the two characters come together to try to find the missing pieces that will make their identities whole again.
Hannah Rosenthal had grown up in a privileged environment in Berlin. Her father was an “eminent professor” and her mother a member of elite society, known for her glamorous fashion sense. Thus, in 1939 when the Jews became undesireables in Germany, life changed vastly and the family became desperate to leave the country or face frightening consequences.
One evening when the Rosenthals sat down for dinner, Hannah spotted a copy of a magazine popular with young women in Germany, Das Deutche Madel. Many of Hannah's former friends had subscriptions to this magazine, of which her parents did not approve. To Hannah's horror she realized, “On the cover of this magazine for pure young girls---the ones who don't bear the stains of their four grandparents, the ones with small, snub noses, skin as white as foam, blond hair, and eyes bluer than the sky itself, where there is no room for any imperfection---there I was, smiling, my eyes fixed on the future. I had become 'the German girl' of the month.” (p.45) Due to Hannah's coloring, she had been mistaken for a pure Aryan by a local photographer who had snapped her picture when she was walking about Berlin with her best friend, Leo Martin. How was it possible that someone considered as “filthy” as she, could have been mistaken for a true German girl?
As Hannah's mother sinks into despair when shunned from the fine hotels in which she used to dine and from German society, Herr Rosenthal and Leo's father, manage to book passage on the ill-fated St. Louis, a ship destined for Cuba, where both families are able to get visas to enter after their two week ocean crossing.The plan is to stay in Cuba for a short time and eventually to emigrate to the United States.
The famous plight of the St. Louis is memorialized in the book The Voyage of the Damned by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan, followed by the film of the same name starring Faye Dunaway, Lee Grant, Max von Sydow, and Malcolm McDowell. Over 900 passengers, all seeking asylum in Cuba, were treated graciously by Captain Gustav Schroeder, during the journey, a fact that is portrayed truthfully in The German Girl. After the St. Louis was refused entry to Cuba, an appeal was made to President Roosevelt to accept the ship, which he refused. A final plea was made to the Canadian government to provide sanctuary, and Canada said no to the refugees as well.
During the cruise to their new lives, Hannah and Leo pledge themselves to each other and plan on a future together. But, as the saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs,” things do not go the way any of the passengers had expected. The St. Louis was turned away from the Cuban shore after a week of negotiating, allowing a handful of passengers to disembark, including Hannah and her mother. Leo, his father, and Herr Rosenthal are forced to return to Europe to face their unknown fates, while Mrs. Rosenthal and her daughter begin their long wait for salvation in Havana.
Anna's story commences in New York in 2014. She speaks of her father's disappearance as if it is a mystery left to be unraveled. In fact, Anna never knew her father because he was lost before her mother even had the chance to tell him that she was expecting a child. Now a young teenager, Anna receives an envelope from her 87 year old Aunt Hannah, for whom Anna is named. In fact, her father had been raised by Hannah in Cuba and Anna realizes that she has a chance to learn about her father's past and can possibly find the answers to questions she has harbored about him all of her life. Thus, Anna and her mother sojourn to Cuba to meet Hannah and learn about the Rosenthal family legacy.
By taking Anna to the “Polish” cemetery (Polish being the euphemism used by the Cubans for escaped Jews), Hannah is able to introduce her great-niece to the family that she has never known. The bond that the old woman and the American teen form helps to heal old wounds, thus relieving the youngster of the pessimism that has plagued her family for decades.
One of Correa's interesting techniques in the novel that worked very well is that certain words that carry powerful connotations are avoided in the telling of the story. For example, Hannah and Leo do not refer to the German soldiers and government officials as Nazis; the pair refer to them as the “Ogres.” There is no specific reference to Hitler, and only once is the term “concentration camp,” introduced. Thus, Correa portrays the world of Hannah and Leo through their eyes.
During their time in Germany, their flight on the St. Louis, and Hannah and her mother's lives in Cuba, there is little reference to the Rosenthal family being Jewish, although the reader understands that this is why they have been cast out of their homeland. This technique is fascinating because many of the German Jews did not practice Judaism as religious people. They had integrated fully with the country which had seemingly accepted them. No where in the novel do we see the family appealing to God for salvation, praying in a synagogue, or performing Jewish customs. There does not seem to be a God in the lives of the Rosenthals.
When one finishes reading The German Girl, there is a lot that a reader wants to discuss with others. This is a powerful historical novel that is perfect for book club sharing, or even classroom study. Since April is the month of the year in which the Holocaust is commemorated, The German Girl is a strong choice of read to remind us of the tragedy and triumph of personal stories during World War II.