Review: Those Who Save Us ~ Jenna Blum

Those who save usFor 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.

4 Thumbs-Up

At no point, in my opinion, would I call this book a love story.  This is a book about perception, assumption and guilt; the kind of guilt that seals the lips, sections off the mind and sours everything that comes within its grasp.  It is also a book about heroism, not the kind we are normally subject to, but the kind of heroes that do not realise, at the time, that this is how they appear to those they help.  Secrets abound in the pages of this book, some of which we only discover the true nature of by reading, as the person holding the secret will take it with them to their grave.

Due to the subject matter of the storyline, which is filled with brutality, questionable morality and some harrowing passages, it is not one that should be read by the sensitive or easily offended reader.  If you are wanting to discover a different perspective of World War II, from the German home front point of view, this is a must read.

The main protagonists in this novel are Mother and Daughter, and their stories take place in war-torn Germany and also in 1990 Minnesota, and it is written from both points of view.  One would expect great character depth and development from a novel involving closely related people, who are also the main protagonists, but as secrets are part of this novel, so they are ingrained into our two main characters.  Such secrecy is an integral part of the character development in this book, it keeps the reader from really finding out anything too deeply about either woman, other than their day-to-day struggles, and the shame they feel about things they have done in the past, or assume to be part of their heritage.  The cast of characters, both during the war era parts of the novel and also the US side of the novel, are painted with a keen pen that reveals all their prejudices and preconceptions as to how a race behaves.  For me, I was more stunned at the reaction of the American civilians to the German woman than I was of the German reaction to the Jews; this reaction is in part, I feel, due to the multitude of books that are available on the subject of the Holocaust (and rightly so), and very few outlining the feelings of those communities these German war brides encountered on their coming to the US.

The bulk of this novel is set in a small town outside which lies a concentration camp.  The description of the town before, during and after the war, as well as that of the camp and all that lies within its fences, are the result of obvious and deep research on the part of the Author.  Many of the things described in this novels pages are written as fact in the annals of history, and this further lends to the book as it shows the amount of research that has gone into making this novel what it is.  In the Authors description of the brutality of both the camp, and the actions of those who work there to the neighbouring townsfolk, we can see that for many that were faced with these wartime situations and the struggle of staying alive, capitulation was the often the easiest and safest route to take for those with a choice.  I am not condoning what happened to millions of Jews during this time, and having been to the Holocaust Museum in Berlin which outlines the immensity of this in chilling detail I never would, but this novel adds another dimension to this time period I had not really looked too closely at before.

Yes, the book does bounce back and forwards between two different time periods, but this just allows deep insights into both character’s lives, how they have been shaped by the atrocities of war and the Holocaust, the will to survive and the guilt that comes with remembering, and how all this affects their relationship.  It is definitely an emotionally draining book, not one of your curl-up with a good book, feel good novels, as it does recount in graphic detail many horrific events and atrocities against Jews and Gentiles alike.  The book is a tense read, and also parts of it are incredibly sad but the Author never allows it to become too depressing by preventing the reader from dwelling  on the horrors of the past, by balancing it with a message of promised hope for the future.

The only thing I found a little disconcerting about the way the novel was written was the lack of speech marks.  This made it a problematic at times to discern whether the character was actually talking or thinking.  However, this was the first novel I had read that was written in this way, and it really did not detract from the storyline or my enjoyment of the novel in any way.  Once read, this is a novel that will stay with the reader a long time.

I would recommend this novel to anyone that has an interest in World War II, whether from an Allied or Third Reich point of view.  Due to the images within its pages, I would not feel comfortable with anyone under a college age reading level picking this up, and also those of a sensitive nature may also find it harrowing.