@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In a moving first novel, Armando Lucas Correa tells the story of The German Girl, a tale of the Holocaust loosely based on historical fact. The “German girl” is Hannah Rosenthal, the blonde, blue-eyed, 11-year-old daughter of a wealthy and prominent Jewish family in Berlin. As Hannah reflects about suffering abuse from her non-Jewish neighbors, “We were more German than they were.” So it is unsurprising that, after Hannah is accidentally photographed on the street early in 1939, she finds her picture on the cover of a Nazi propaganda magazine, Das Deutsche Mädel, which translates as “the German girl.”
An unusual perspective on the Holocaust
By extension, the “German girl” is also Hannah’s great-niece, Anna Rosen, who is also 11 years old. It’s 2014, and she lives in New York City with her mother, a former Spanish literature professor at Columbia University. Hannah and Anna’s story is revealed in a series of alternating memories related by the two pre-teens. The scene shifts from Berlin to New York to Havana, with a lengthy stay on board the German ocean liner that brought Hannah and her mother to Havana.
The scenes in Berlin accurately reflect the hatred and brutality of the Nazis directed toward the country’s large Jewish population—and the active complicity of most of their neighbors. But the Holocaust as it is generally described isn’t fully in place until well after World War II is underway. Correa writes about the Holocaust from an unusual perspective, never coming near a concentration camp or witnessing mass murder. Most of the action in The German Girl takes place in Berlin and on board the ocean liner in 1939, in New York in 2014, and in Havana over the years from 1939 to 2014. But the specter of the Holocaust is never absent. Every one of the characters in this deeply affecting novel acts under its influence.
The German girl’s story, chronologically told
Hannah lives in Berlin in a palatial apartment with her heiress mother and her father, an eminent professor and leader within the Jewish community. As the noose tightens around Berlin’s Jews, Hannah’s father finally succeeds in buying the necessary visas for the family to enter Cuba and later the U.S. as well as first-class passage on the liner St. Louis. Their two-week passage to Havana is largely pleasant—until the Cuban government invalidates their visas and denies them the right to land. Somehow, the professor arranges privately to allow Hannah and her mother to disembark. They consider their stay in Havana to be temporary, but it proves to be permanent. In 2014, Hannah’s great-niece Anna visits Havana with her mother in hopes of learning about her father, who disappeared before Anna was even born. In the weeks they spend with the now 87-year-old Hannah, Anna learns the answers to some of the many secrets surrounding the Rosenthal/Rosen family. In the course of the women’s recollections, we also learn a good deal about life in Cuba before, during, and after the Revolution.
The historical background
As Correa relates in an Author’s Note at the conclusion of this novel, the journey of the ocean liner St. Louis that rests at the core of this story really took place. “At eight in the evening of Saturday, May 13, 1939, the transatlantic liner St. Louis of the Hamburg-Amerika Linie (HAPAG) set sail from the port of Hamburg bound for Havana, Cuba. Most were in transit to the United States; they possessed American visas but had not yet been cleared to enter the country.”
The St. Louis was carrying 900 passengers, the vast majority of them German-Jewish refugees, and 231 crew. All but a handful of those passengers were refused entry into Cuba, even though they held valid entry visas. Then, both the United States and Canada turned them away, too. World War II had not yet begun, and none of the three governments wished to antagonize increasingly powerful Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitism played a major role in the refusal, too. Many weeks later, after intense negotiations, the nearly 900 remaining passengers were released from the ship in Antwerp, from which they traveled to Great Britain, France, Holland, and destinations in Belgium. As Correa notes, “Only the 287 taken in by Great Britain were safe. Most of the remainder of the former St. Louis passengers suffered the horrors of war or were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.”