Off the Shelf: Just after the war

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A novel for adults

Why would two Jews who escaped from Germany before the World War II want to return? That question underlies Ellen Feldman’s excellent “The Living and the Lost” (St. Martin’s Griffin). The answer for David Mosbach is simple: he joined the U.S. Army to fight against the Nazis. His sister, Millie, the novel’s main character, volunteers to return to Berlin to help the army with its denazification process, but finds it difficult to separate her personal feelings from her work.

Even a relationship with one of her coworkers, a man who also lost relatives during the war, does little to help her escape the past: although she experiences pleasure, she doesn’t feel close to him, perhaps because “with his eighteen relatives, several million strangers, and three others whom she tried not to think about, the bed had been too crowded for intimacy.” What puzzles her is how her boss, Major Harry Sutton, can feel sympathy for the Germans; he strives to be objective, something she finds practically impossible. In fact, so much of life in post-war Germany baffles her, not the least being the American soldiers with German girlfriends. How can they be friends with someone who was just their enemy? How can they forgive or forget what the Germans did during the war? Hidden under these feelings is the secret of how she and David were able to escape, when her parents and younger sister were not. But until Millie is willing to face her past, she will never find peace.

“The Living and the Lost” quickly got under my skin: at first, what drove my interest was wondering what happened to Millie’s parents and sister. But the novel has far more depth than that suggests; for example, the author does a wonderful job not only showing what occurred in Germany before the war, but what life was like for the younger Millie in the U.S., especially the casual antisemitism she faced. What also struck me was the reason one character gives for remaining Jewish: “As long as it’s a crime or a shame or even a disadvantage to be a Jew, I’ll be one.” However, the novel’s main focus is on guilt and forgiveness in their many forms. This makes “The Living and the Lost” an excellent choice for book clubs.

A novel for young adults

Two things drive Eva Gerst: one is to protect her friend, Brigit Heidelmann, whose experiences in the war have made her behavior so unpredictable that Eva fears she’ll be placed in a sanitarium. The other is to find her father – not so they can be reunited, but so she can kill him before he offers dangerous medical knowledge to the Americans or the Soviets. These are the reasons Eva changed her name and lied in order to immigrate from Germany to the United States, where she believes her father is now living. In “Bluebird” by Sharon Cameron (Scholastic Press), Eva discovers accomplishing those tasks may not be as easy as she hoped. 

Not everyone in the U.S. is accepting of Germans after the war, but those helping Eva and Brigit show the two young women far more kindness than Eva expects. In fact, she is constantly surprised by their efforts. However, Eva worries she won’t be able to escape her past, a past that is revealed in flashbacks showing what occurred during and after the war. These include meetings with a man who expects Eva to find her father so that the Americans can make use of the research he did for Project Bluebird, something Eva considers so dangerous, she is willing to kill to prevent it from falling into any government’s hands.

This summary doesn’t do justice to the complex plot, which is filled with fascinating twists and turns. Although this is a young adult novel, it doesn’t need to be limited to that audience. This impressive work is perfect for book clubs, although Jewish clubs should note that the main character is not Jewish. However, seeing the war and its aftermath through her eyes makes for a very interesting and absorbing reading.

A novel for middle grades

The main characters in Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch”s “Traitors Among Us” (Scholastic Press) are also not Jewish, although their family would be considered Righteous Gentiles for helping Jews escape the Nazis. The two narrators – Krystia (16) and Maria (14) – are sisters who were separated when Maria volunteered for German war work in order to save her Jewish friend, Nathan. That left Krystia in Ukraine with only their mother, who was later killed for hiding Jews in their home. Now the two girls are in a displaced persons camp in the American zone of Germany and plan to emigrate to the U.S. to live with a relative they’ve never met.

However, those plans go awry when another girl accuses the sisters of having collaborated with the Nazis. They are arrested by the Soviets and taken to a prison where they are interrogated. The sisters despised the Nazis, although Krystia wonders if she would have been able to resist their propaganda if she’d been born in Germany. What both sisters know is that Soviets want to crush any resistance to their rule of Ukraine, which means learning about those who fought against the Nazis. Will the girls break during their interrogations or will they keep protecting those fighting for their country?

“Traitors Among Us” is exciting and easy to read. The moral decisions the girls face are interesting enough that adults can also enjoy the book. This excellent novel is a great choice for parent/child discussion groups. My one quibble – that the ending seemed unrealistic – was answered in the author’s note, which showed that her fiction is based on an almost unbelievable real-life incident.