**I was given this book in return for an honest review.**
I’m not usually one for sad stories, or historical fiction. I’m even, not really one for family sagas. However, I enjoyed this book. At the beginning of the book I felt sorry for Greta, who is stuck with Wilhelm after he got her pregnant. She’s Jewish and he’s a German, but when they meet, a love of literature brings them together and he assures her that her nationality means nothing to him, even though it would to some others. After getting pregnant, Wilhelm promises to stick by her and they get married. Overtime, Greta continues to love him, but he doesn’t love anything other than her looks. He used to love her intelligence, but not anymore. They bonded over books and literature and as soon as she got pregnant, that was taken from her. As was her family.
I find Wilhelm a total cad and a scoundrel. I hate his family and how they treat Greta and I feel sorry for Greta’s family that they’re losing her to such morons. To be honest, I was immediately quite worried about Karl’s upbringing as well. I think what happens to Greta, concerning Wilhelm and Karl, is so sad but it’s nice to see that she copes well with the vast change that’s thrust upon her.
Normally, I don’t like long breaks in the story, or long history/background lessons during a story, but here it really works. It’s not a lecture or boring, it’s intriguing and captivating. I studied Germany and the war in high school and again in an OU course, Humanities, and never knew most of what Fischer is telling me through this story. I never knew that large factions of Jewish people say it coming, that the writing was on the wall from as early as 1938. It’s a real eye opener, and it really gives a strong sense of anticipation, foreboding and ‘luck’ to the story.
I do love the characters in this book. I love Johan and although Johanna is a bit of a nightmare and a cow, you do get rare moments of light. When she does something, it’s always for the ‘greater good’ of her family, even if someone gets hurt or she has to feel remorse later. That’s her payment. I also like that you get to see both sides of the argument, and how easily a person who had once had no problem with Jews could have their mind changed. Wilhelm showed this well, and Johanna is constantly battling conflicting feelings against the Jewish people. I know someone, a German, who was conscripted into the army back then, even though he, like Egon and Gunter, had no issues with the Jews, and how, like Gunter, it wasn’t possible to say no without some ill effect.
I also like how Egon and Gunter are considered inferior and weak by their families but its their intellect that gains them pride and praise in the army. It’s nice to see them getting some attention and approval after being practically abandoned and neglected by their families. I especially love little Wilma. She’s so fragile and you just want to wrap her up and protect her from life. I think it’s sweet that the steward was attracted to her, but even better was the just desserts he got from the girls. The rat incident was hilarious. I particularly enjoy Edith and Esther, they’re so much fun.
I enjoy the characters that we meet in the camps, Freddie and even the old German women who are complete cows. They are real and honest and brutal sometimes, but believable. I especially loved Joschka. He was so sweet and lonely. You tend to forget that non Jewish people got caught up in the camps and that, besides hating Jews, the Nazis hated anyone who was different, whether that be religiously, politically, geographically or through sexual orientation. Edith, Esther and Joschka were both in danger for their sexuality, and it’s heartbreaking to hear Joschka’s story.
For me, the real luck of the Weissensteiners, was that Greta married Wilhelm. Although I hate him and he was a total … I can’t even find a word to describe him but he was cruel, and I’m glad no-one had to suffer him much, it was their marriage that saved the Weissensteiner family. Without that, they might never have had so much success. Wilhelm took Greta to the farm, leaving Jonah one less mouth to feed, and Johanna would allow ‘care’ packages to go back from the farm to the Weissensteiners. Without Johanna, things would have been a lot worse for the family. Jonah could never have safely attended the Countess’ ball, without knowing that he had Johanna’s barn to sleep in so that he didn’t get caught out after curfew. And without the Countess, nothing would have gone right, as she continued to keep their family name off the list of Jews. Although Egon was saved by his army officer, who recognised his talent, the rest of the family could still have been taken as Jews, with minimal damage or risk to exposing Egon. Only the Countess saved them.
And I think that’s the real moral of the story, that the Weissensteiners, though Jewish, were saved by the people who loved them. Johanna, a German with conflicting views on Jews, and a Hungarian Countess who felt overly privileged and loved art. Without these friends, the family would surely have been found out at some point. I think the fact that they were sheltered and saved by these people is a true testament to how people are people, humans are humans and it doesn’t matter about the colour of their skin, their accent, or their religious beliefs. Family are family. Friends are friends no matter what.
I really loved the Epilogue, and getting to find out how the story really ended. It’s so sad that it took so many years for Greta and her family to find out the truth of what had happened to Alma, Jonah, the Countess and Egon. But that was how it really was. Some families still never know what happened to their relatives, even now, and it’s gut wrenching. Needless to say that I cried at the end. I held out hope enough to stop myself until it was over. I find it completely perfect that Ernst found his family, even the lost ones, and got a conclusion to the story. We never found out what happened to Roswinth, who ran into the woods when the Soviets came, Gunter who was lost in the war, and Sarah, who was deported. Sadly, I think they died. But the sad truth is, that far too many people died, of any nationality and any proclivity.
I really look forward to reading more from this author.