Author: Gemma Liviera
Genre: Historical fiction
I am unsure how I came upon this book; however, I have great interest in stories that take place against the backdrop of World War II. In this book, by Gemma Liviero, we experience the war from three primary viewpoints–Matilda, Elsi, and Willem.
Matilda is a young Romanian girl with German roots, who was signed away by her mother at gunpoint to the Nazis. She ends up in a “germanization” center for girls, where she suffers through cruel punishment, including being locked in a house with no windows, for not bending to the rules of the center.
Elsi is a teenage girl whose mother is Jewish, and father is Polish. She has a younger sister, who was born with a shorter leg. Her father owned a furniture store in Łódz, Poland, and he loved her mother very much–so much so that he sewed the star of david into his clothes. Elsi spends a part of her teenage years in the ghetto, where she joins the resistance movement.
We first meet Willem Gerhardt in the ghetto, when Elsi brings her mother in the middle of the night to the surgery center to get a procedure done as her mother is bleeding horribly. He is the son of Anton Gerhardt, a highly placed Nazi official, and a doctor specializing in gynecology and general practice. After experiencing abominations, he begins to question his roles and the future of those he is not to associate with.
Throughout the book, we learn how these three lives become intertwined, how broken they are, and how they eventually heal.
My verdict: It was a book that was hard to get into, at first, partially because I didn’t know what the three characters have to do with one another. The relationship between them is only revealed in the last several chapters of the book, when it begins to come together. The book also isn’t clear where the characters are located in the beginning pages. It’s only midway through that we can begin to guess at possible locations. For example, based on the language that Matilda uses, I thought she was in southern Poland; however, it is later revealed that she is actually from Romania. Same with Elsi and Willem–they are described as being and working in the “ghetto,” and if you know your history of WWII, there were ghettos everywhere in Poland. At first it sounded like maybe they were in Warsaw, but midway through it’s described that they were initially in Łódz.
Overall, the book was interesting and I did connect with the characters and their harrowing stories. I loved how Matilda did not give up her brave and fierce nature no matter what she faced, which reminded me how resilient and stubborn children can be to changes that may make them into someone they arent. I connected with Willem, a man who was not perfect, who had his faults, and who by the standards of the International Tribunal on War Crimes would have been a War Criminal for his involvement in Auschwitz; however, the story also showed how this experience changed him and played a role in his decision to challenge the Nazi viewpoint. It showed that human nature is not necessarily all evil or all good; that evil people can do good things, and that we should not judge by one side of a person’s character, but by the whole. The character I least connected with was Elsi because she felt more like a shell of a character than one who had any real role to play–as if she was a filler to show another side of a story. If she weren’t there, the story wouldn’t have changed, except that the information surrounding the ghettos and the Holocaust wouldn’t be portrayed. On the other hand, Elsi is the catalyst for what Willem does in the middle of the book, which changes all three individuals life course.
If you enjoy historical fiction based on WWII, this was an interesting read that made me want to research more about the things that happened during the war.