The effects of World War II didn’t end when the shooting stopped and peace treaties were signed. The heroism of some was recognized, the sins of others were punished and an even larger group sought to pretend that nothing untoward had occurred. While only one of the three novels in this review takes place during the war, the lives of all the characters are affected by events from that time, even those who were very young. The theme that runs through these works is the ethical challenges those years offered, challenges that determined the course of the characters’ lives.
A group of criminals plan to hijack a government project and produce something subversive instead. That describes the plot of E. R. Ramzipoor’s clever “The Ventriloquists” (Park Row Books). However, there are some major differences between my opening statement and Ramzipoor’s novel: instead of government, read Nazis, and in place of criminals, think members of the Resistance. The project? The Nazis want a motley group of Resistance members to turn Brussels’ most popular newspaper into propaganda against the Allies, who are close to invading the country. If they refuse, they will be executed. Knowing that the Nazis will most likely kill them anyway once the project is complete, they decide to produce their own paper: one that pokes fun at the Nazis. They want to perform one last important deed – raising the morale of their fellow citizens – before their deaths. While this may sound like a ridiculous premise, the novel’s plot is based on actual events – events so outlandish, it’s hard to believe they actually occurred.
The Resistance group includes a writer/journalist, Marc Aubrion; a prostitute/smuggler, Lada Tarcovich; a professor, Martin Victor; a printer, Theo Mullier; and Gamin, a 12-year-old orphan girl masquerading as a boy. Once recruited by August Wolff, a ranking Nazi official who is charged with getting the Nazi paper written and printed, the Resistance group has 20 days in which to gather funds and material in order to produce their alternative paper. They are joined by David Spiegelman, a Jewish homosexual, who has been forging letters and other material for the Nazis since being taking into custody after his family was murdered. Spiegelman is looking for redemption, even though he knows if he resists the Nazis, they won’t hesitate to kill him. The chapters count down the days as the group searches for help in their endeavor and faces the reality of their impending deaths.
“The Ventriloquists” is exceedingly well done. Not only is the plot absorbing and suspenseful, the characters are interesting and well developed. Ramzipoor manages to capture their depth: the reasons why they were involved in the Resistance and the delusions that allowed them to proceed in what seemed like an impossible task. The novel left me feeling exhilarated by its audacity, which captures the courage, recklessness and boldness of those who, in real life, pulled off this amazing stunt.
For some, the horrors of World War II didn’t end when the war concluded. That was true for Cilka Klein, the main character in “Cilka’s Journey” by Heather Morris (St. Martin’s Press). While readers of the author’s first novel, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” will know part of Cilka’s story, it’s not necessary to have read that work in order to appreciate Morris’ second novel. (To read The Reporter’s review of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” visit www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=5153.) However, many readers of that work were left wondering what happened to Cilka after the war.
Once liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet forces, 19-year-old Cilka is accused of collaborating with the Nazis and sentenced to 15 years in a Siberian prison camp. Flashbacks show her supposed crime: she was forced by an SS officer to be his mistress. Although she feels guilty because this gave her some special privileges, she had no choice in the matter: it was rape or death. Life in Siberia is slightly better than the concentration camp, although women are still raped by inmate trustees, the food is not nutritious, the cold is unbearable most of the year and the work is backbreaking. But Cilka, to her own dismay, manages to find an easier job: being trained as a nurse by a female doctor who takes her under her wing. Cilka tries to help the others who live in her cabin by bringing back food and other necessities. However, when one woman learns of Cilka’s past, Cilka fears her friends will desert her if they also learn what she did to survive in Auschwitz.
Although Cilka is based on a real person, Morris notes that she never had a chance to meet her and wrote the story based on what she learned from those who had similar experiences. While the author captures the brutality of life in the prison camps, at times, Cilka comes across as far too saintly to be real. That’s a minor quibble, though, about a book that reveals the brutality of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and portrays the complicated ethical questions people faced during World War II.
“The German House”
By 1963, most Germans wanted to forget about World War II. Twenty-four-year-old Eva Bruhns is certainly more concerned about whether or not her wealthy boyfriend, Jurgen, will propose, and if her father’s back will recover enough for him to open their family restaurant for lunch again, rather than just for dinner. In fact, Eva is hoping that she’ll soon be leaving her job as a translator to become a housewife. However, life takes a different turn for Eva in “The German House” by Annette Hess (HarperVia) when she finds herself being asked to translate the testimony of Polish survivors of Auschwitz.
Eva finds herself fascinated and repelled by the German defendants, who seem so normal it’s difficult to imagine they are guilty of the brutality of which they are accused. The men claim not to be responsible for what occurred in the camp. Yet, as Eva translates stories of the suffering that was meted out during those years, she begins to doubt the defendants’ innocence. This is Eva’s first introduction to the Holocaust, of which everyone she knows is determined not to speak. Even worse, she has memories of her childhood that make her question her parents’ role during the war. Jurgen would prefer she have nothing to do with the trial, something that also makes her doubt their relationship. Eva must determine whether it’s her moral and ethical duty to expose the evil that occurred, or if she should hide her eyes like those around her.
“The German House” is an unusual Holocaust novel because, although readers do hear the testimony of those who were in the camp, it focuses on the reaction of a woman too young to have taken part in the Nazi movement. Instead, Eva looks at the war from a distance as she decides if what occurred during those years will affect her relationships with her family and boyfriend. To my surprise, the ending of the novel left me feeling shaken and upset. To reveal what caused that would spoil the plot, but its conclusion left me still searching for answers to the questions it raises.