The German Girl adds to the plethora of historical fiction that centres around WWII, however, this is a unique story that you likely have not heard before. The German girl is Hannah Rosenthal, from a wealthy family living in Berlin she sees the ugly side of humanity when her family is shunned for their Jewish background in a country on the brink of war. Her family find hope aboard the SS St Louis, a ship leaving Berlin to the safety of Havana in Cuba, a promise of a new life in New York. Seven decades later we meet Anna Rosen, living in New York with her ghost of a mother still grieving her father’s death. Their lives are changed forever when they hear Anna’s great-aunt Hannah and make a pilgrimage to Havana to meet her, to learn about her father’s history.
This is certainly not your typical historical fiction, this story is based heavily in fact around the stain that was the SS St Louis on Cuba, America and Canada’s conscience. Even now there is no mention of the St Loius in Cuba’s historical archives. What I found incredibly special about this novel was the inclusion of the manifesto of the 937 passengers names that boarded the St Louis with hope at a new life and some photos of the fated passengers at the end of the novel. This brought the reader back to earth, realising that while, yes, this story and the characters are fictional, this situation, this history is truth and this could very well have been a reality for those aboard this ship, well the lucky ones at least.
What I also found striking within this novel was another difference to your typical historical fiction based around WWII. Most of the action happens prior to the war really ramping up and outside of Europe. There isn’t a lot of “war action” as such and therefore the characters arena’s your typical heroes that you find within the pages of novels such as The Nightingale and All The Light We Cannot See. These characters were allowed to be flawed, more relatable, more conceivable. It gave the novel so much colour and unique characters to fall in love with and become frustrated with. Hannah’s mother, Alma, in particular was a great character. She was prideful, haughty and refused to back down or accept that her place in society had changed. Hannah herself had many problems with herself and the world around her. I found her preoccupation with the idea that she was dirty fascinating and loved that she was unapologetic and stood her ground in her beliefs. These traits were also the downfalls of these characters, allowing their pride and stubbornness to rule them for the rest of their lives, trapped living in protest of a country who let them down. The relationship between Hannah and Anna was another highlight, you almost imagine them as the same person but in two separate time points.
I do have to say this is more a tale of the lifelong struggle with displacement, loss and tragedy and how that manifests as grief, how people survive and carry on, rather than your average historical fiction within a war. It stood out for that historical aspect, a slice of WWII history that I had never heard of, would likely never discovered had I not read this book. There is a deluge of WWII historical fiction but this is a memorable tale of multiple countries failing the doomed Jewish people of Germany. It is chilling to think how most of the signatures on the list at the back of this novel ended up perishing in concentration camps before the end of the war. This is a tale of the lucky ones, that made it to the mecca of Cuba, but we still see how tragic and difficult their lives are. This is a unique, beautiful and tragic story that I urge you all to read. I give The German Girl three ships bearing Hannah away from danger.