Monday, May 26, 2008

Those Who Save Us

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

This is the author’s first novel, and it will be very interesting to see if she can live up to the standard of writing that she delivered in Those Who Save Us. From the little bit of research that I did, I found that Ms. Blum is of German descent and is half Jewish. She worked for the Shoah Foundation for four years, interviewing Holocaust survivors. It is quite interesting to know this background after having read the book.

The story alternates between war-torn Nazi Germany and the present. For the past 50 years, Trudy’s mother, Anna has refused to talk about her life in Germany during the war. Trudy was three years old when she and Anna were liberated by an American soldier, who married Anna and took Anna and Trudy to Minnesota to live. Trudy’s only link to her past is a family portrait she found in Anna’s possessions of Anna, herself and a Nazi officer.

A good synopsis of the story from Publishers Weekly:
“The narrative alternates between the present-day story of Trudy, a history professor at a Minneapolis university collecting oral histories of WWII survivors (both German and Jewish), and that of her aged but once beautiful German mother, Anna, who left her country when she married an American soldier. Interspersed with Trudy's interviews with German immigrants, many of whom reveal unabashed anti-Semitism, Anna's story flashes back to her hometown of Weimar. As Nazi anti-Jewish edicts intensify in the 1930s, Anna hides her love affair with a Jewish doctor, Max Stern. When Max is interned at nearby Buchenwald and Anna's father dies, Anna, carrying Max's child, goes to live with a baker who smuggles bread to prisoners at the camp. Anna assists with the smuggling after Trudy's birth until the baker is caught and executed. Then Anna catches the eye of the Obersturmf hrer, a high-ranking Nazi officer at Buchenwald, who suspects her of also supplying the inmates with bread. He coerces her into a torrid, abusive affair, in which she remains complicit to ensure her survival and that of her baby daughter. “

The book is similar to Sophie’s Choice in the sense that Anna has to make life-decisions that are the kind of choices that no woman ever wants to be forced into making. It is about choices women have to make to save their children. The book begs the questions of what happens when a women has to ignore her own sense of right in order to save herself and her child? What are the future implications of such choices? Can a woman live with those choices? Can those choices ever be understood by others?

It is never really clear how Anna felt about her choices. Obviously, she was always and forever unwilling to discuss the past that she had. But it is not clear exactly why. I would suspect that she felt guilt for being with the Nazi officer, and I also think that at times she may have cared for him and felt guilt over that. After all, she kept the photo of the family all those years.
The book leaves one wondering: What would I have done to save my child? And how would I have lived with the choices?

I found the book especially intriguing as it involved seeking the past, which is my second (only to reading) addiction. Genealogy is seeking the past. Some say the past history of one’s family is not their business. Yet we are formed by our family’s past and how can we understand who we really are without knowing the past? This book is a good example of that. Once Trudy uncovered the real truth of her past, it would completely alter her conceptualization of who she is and what her life would become.

I highly recommend this book. I could not put it down, which is the comment that runs through all of the reviews I have seen of the book. I read it during dinner, instead of watching TV, late into the night, etc. It is really that good!

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