Berlin in 1939 is a city of fear. Wealth, status and intelligence count for nothing in the face of hostility and antipathy towards people of the Jewish faith. For many families the only option is to flee the country. But who will take them? Other countries are not falling over themselves to provide a refuge.
For the Rosenthal family, salvation beckons when they gain coveted visas enabling them to enter Cuba, from where they will head to the United States. Leaving their classy apartment and precious heirlooms behind to be snaffled by the Nazi regime, they board the SS St. Louis, a luxurious transatlantic liner, and head for asylum. But before they can dock, the Cuban government changes its mind, leaving the 900 passengers in limbo.
After a tense period 12 -year-old Hannah Rosenthal and her mother are allowed entry but her professor father is barred because he has a different type of visa. The ship’s captain has little choice but to return to Europe with almost a full complement of passengers. Professor Rosenthal and Hannah’s best friend Leo sail away from Cuba, fearing imprisonment or death.
Reading this as a piece of fiction is an emotionally-engaging experience. But it’s made more so by the knowledge that The German Girl is based on a little-known episode that, until the early part of this century, was not even publicly acknowledged. The author Armando Lucas Correa, who is editor-in-chief of People en Español, has clearly based his debut novel on extensive research. The back of the book comes with an extensive historical note about the whole episode and what happened to the passengers after they left Cuba. But what touched me was to find a page bearing the signatures of all the passengers on the ship and numerous photographs showing them on board the ship.
Correa has chosen to tell his story through the eyes of two teenage girls. Hannah Rosenthal is a thoughtful but determined girl, fiercely loyal to her friend Leo and devoted to her father. Her relationship with her mother is more distant. Hannah constantly comments on how her mother acts as if she is on a stage, choosing her outfits carefully and deliberately waiting to be the last to board the ship so that all eyes will be upon her. She begins her story in dramatic fashion: “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.”
It’s a reflection of her desperation and unhappiness at having to love her home in Berlin even though she is frightened by the red and black flags draped along every street. Leo is her salvation, a street-wise kid who always seems to know what is going on and who extracts Hannah’s promise that she will never forget him.
Alternating with Hannah’s story is that of Anna Rosen, a 12-year-old girl in present-day New York. Anna’s father died in the attack on the World Trade Centre before Anna was born. Her mother has retreated into herself and the girl is left to suffer alone. One day she receives a package from great-aunt Hannah in Cuba who had acted as a surrogate mother to Anna’s late father. The package contains photographs taken on board a ship. In search of anything that will help her connect with her father, Anna and her mother travel to Cuba to meet Hannah and hear her story. What she reveals is that even in Cuba they were never allowed to forget they were ‘outsiders’.
The dual time narrative unfortunately didn’t work for me. I can see why Correa chose that approach, drawing parallels between the loss that both girls experience and the way they have to grow up quickly to look after their mothers. But Anna’s narrative had little of the drama and pathos that I found with Hannah’s story and the connections were often forced. In fact I don’t think the book would have suffered at all if Anna had been eliminated.
The German Girl was at times a frustrating experience because of that dual-narrator issue but it did get me thinking about the way, even today, refugees are treated.