Off the Shelf: Resistance and hiding in plain sight

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Fiction making history come alive: that describes two recent novels about World War II. Pam Jenoff and J. C. Maetis (better known as thriller writer John Matthews) take lesser known events from the war and create page-turning works about those who resisted or hid from the Nazis. In “Code Name Sapphire” (Park Row Books), Jenoff writes not only of those who helped downed Allied airmen escape the Nazis, but a true life attempt to liberate prisoners from a train taking them to a concentration camp. Maetis explores how Jews and Romani lived openly in Austria after procuring forged papers and new names in “The Vienna Writers Circle” (Mira).

Taking place in 1942, “Code Name Sapphire” features four narrators: Jewish Hannah Martel and her cousin Lily, and two members of the resistance, Micheline and her brother, Matteo. Hannah escaped Nazi Germany and sailed to Cuba, but the passengers were unable to disembark and the ship returned to Europe with its passengers. Because Lily lives in Brussels, the two cousins are reunited after years apart. However, life is not easy for Jews in Belgium: Lily’s doctor husband can no longer treat non-Jews and other restrictions are soon added. However, Lily feels more Belgian than Jewish and has no plans to emigrate. Life, however, is more precarious for Hannah, who took part in resisting the Nazis in Germany. She needs to find a way to escape Europe before the Nazi occupiers of Belgium discover her real identity.

This puts her into contact with Micheline and Matteo, whose Sapphire Line is part of the Belgian resistance movement. The pair work to help downed airmen escape occupied territory so they can make their way back to England and continue the fight against the Nazis. But the group is always one step from discovery since the Nazis want to arrest and kill members of the resistance movement. In return for agreeing to find a way for Hannah to escape, Micheline asks her to help in rescuing the Allied airmen. Although at first reluctant, Hannah soon relishes returning to resistance work. However, Lily is not happy when she discovers what Hannah is doing because her work could endanger the family. In fact, that’s what happens, which is what ultimately leads to the rescue mission. 

“Code Name Sapphire” is a well-done and exciting thriller. The suspense builds as the pages turn and readers will be tempted to look ahead to discover what happens, but it’s worth waiting for the revelations. The novel is more realistic than some in the genre, but to reveal more would ruin the surprises. Anyone interested in thrillers about World War II will find much to enjoy.

While those who resisted the Nazis in “Code Name Sapphire” took an active role against the invaders, there were other ways to defy the Nazis. For the members of “The Vienna Writers Circle,” resistance was hiding in plain sight – managing to survive until the Nazis could be defeated by the Allies. The novel centers around another set of cousins: thriller writers Mathias Kraemer and Johannes Namal. When Hitler annexes Austria, anyone who was part of Sigmund Freud’s circle is seen as dangerous to the regime. When the cousins are unable to escape from the country, they and their families go underground with the help of their agent and a friend from the police force. 

Unfortunately, the SS is looking for anyone connected to Freud and one agent in particular is interested in Kraemer. Discovery would send Kraemer and his family to a concentration camp or immediate death. The plot, though, is more complex than this summary suggests, especially when people are forced to make life or death decisions that have ramifications beyond their control. 

“The Vienna Writers Circle” opens with a familiar prologue: readers learn what happens to one of the characters, but can’t predict whose story is being told since no names are revealed. However, the author offers an interesting twist on this almost stereotyped beginning for World War II books. The novel is filled with suspense and interesting characters, and enough surprises to keep readers guessing and turning pages. To add to the interest, the author’s note at the end of the book explains why he decided to write this work, including the fact that he didn’t know his father was Jewish until he was dying. Readers of World War II thrillers will want to add this to their pile.