The German Girl
by Armando Lucas Correa
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel, perfect for fans of The Nightingale, Schindler’s List, and All the Light We Cannot See, about twelve-year-old Hannah Rosenthal’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.
Before everything changed, young Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. But now, in 1939, the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; her family’s fine possessions are hauled away; and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. Hannah and her best friend, Leo Martin, make a pact: whatever the future has in store for them, they’ll meet it together.
Hope appears in the form of the SS St. Louis, a transatlantic liner offering Jews safe passage out of Germany. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart on the luxurious ship bound for Havana. Life on board the St. Louis is like a surreal holiday for the refugees, with masquerade balls, exquisite meals, and polite, respectful service. But soon ominous rumors from Cuba undermine the passengers’ fragile sense of safety. From one day to the next, impossible choices are offered, unthinkable sacrifices are made, and the ship that once was their salvation seems likely to become their doom.
Seven decades later in New York City, on her twelfth birthday, Anna Rosen receives a strange package from an unknown relative in Cuba, her great-aunt Hannah. Its contents will inspire Anna and her mother to travel to Havana to learn the truth about their family’s mysterious and tragic past, a quest that will help Anna understand her place and her purpose in the world.
The German Girl sweeps from Berlin at the brink of the Second World War to Cuba on the cusp of revolution, to New York in the wake of September 11, before reaching its deeply moving conclusion in the tumult of present-day Havana. Based on a true story, this masterful novel gives voice to the joys and sorrows of generations of exiles, forever seeking a place called home.
I was fortunate enough to receive an Advanced Copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I really enjoyed this book! Like I have said in previous blog posts, I read a ton of WWII Historical Fiction. This story was a different take on this tragic time in our history which made me enjoy it even more. The main character of this book is Hannah Rosenthal who is eleven years old in 1939 living in Berlin. Her family, especially her mother Alma is well known in Berlin’s social circles and her father Max is an esteemed professor. All of this doesn’t matter however because although Hannah is just as blonde haired and blue eyed as most Germans, The Rosenthal’s are considered “Impure” to their neighbors, friends and German soldiers. Hannah’s mother “Felt she was paying for the offenses of others: her parents, grandparents-every one of her ancestors throughout the centuries.” One of the things that stuck with me the most reading this was that although the Rosenthal’s owned the entire apartment building they lived in, ALL of their tenants were waiting for them to move out! The building had been in Hannah’s mother’s family since before she was even born, yet her neighbors felt like they were above their landlords simply because of their heritage. That is crazy! So Hannah and her family avoided run-ins with their neighbors in the elevator or the stairwells because of the terrible things that were said to them and the dirty looks they received. Hannah’s mother Alma receded into herself and slipped into a deep depression as her papa Max disappeared more often to plan their escape and resistance. Luckily, Hannah had her best friend Leo to spend time with and the two of them had a bond that couldn’t be broken. As time went on, Berlin was getting more and more dangerous and after Max is arrested they realize it is time to get out. Alma pulls herself out of her depression and secures tickets for the three of them aboard the over 900 passenger vessel called The St. Louis. This large luxury cruise liner was to take them to Cuba where they would await their entrance to New York. Hannah was heartbroken to leave Leo behind, but was overjoyed when she realized that he would be joining her and her family after all. While aboard the ship, Hannah and Leo explore and live life joyously like they hadn’t been able to for so long in Berlin. Of course circumstances begin to deteriorate as The St. Louis begins receiving messages from Cuba that the passengers are no longer welcome in the Country. Leo tells Hannah that she needs to find cyanide capsules brought on board by her parents in the very event that they are not allowed to disembark the ship. Hannah’s parents believe they are doing the right thing, but Leo does not want Hannah to die and so he instructs her to find the capsules and bring them to him. Without going into any further details, I will say that this book is a rollercoaster of emotions. The story moves back and forth between the past with Hannah and present day with her Great Niece Anna whose father Hannah helped raise. Anna’s father was tragically killed on 9/11 before Anna was born and she is desperate to know the family she never knew existed until now. This story is a tale of sadness and of lost life and love. Although I found myself wanting to weep many times throughout, I take away that this story is all about closure. Closure was something sought by these characters in a way I haven’t read about before. Hannah was able to hold on to a promise she made to someone very important to her and I found that so inspiring and beautiful. Anna was seeking closure in her own way which leads her on unexpected journeys and down paths she never expected. I recommend this book to readers who not only enjoy stories about WWII but to readers who enjoy stories with tragic and beautiful characters. I was able to picture them all and could see their actions as ones I believed they would actually take. Sadly, these events actually took place in real life. The story is widely unknown and the tragic denial of entry to Cuba for most of the passengers resulted in many of their deaths. This is the first novel written by Armando Lucas Correa. It is a beautiful story and his dedication at the end “To the 907 passengers on the St. Louis who were denied entry into Cuba, the United States, and Canada, to whom we shall forever be in debt” is a tragic reminder of how our past transgressions against the refugees during the Holocaust should never be forgotten.
Please purchase this book. I know you will enjoy it.