The German Girl brings to light a little-known episode in history, one that, until the early part of this century, was not even publicly acknowledged. Correa’s novel reveals the appalling way in which the world turned its back on people of the Jewish faith who tried to flee Germany in 1939.
Set in Berlin, Havana and New York, The German Girl covers 70-plus years of history through the eyes of two girls: Hannah Rosenthal and Anna Rosen.
Twelve year old Hannah lives with her family in Berlin which 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 like the Rosenthals the only option is to flee the country. But who will take them? Other countries are not falling over themselves to provide a refuge.
Salvation beckons when Hannah’s parents gain coveted visas enabling them to enter Cuba, from where they can proceed to the United States. Leaving their classy apartment and precious heirlooms behind to be snaffled by the Nazi regime, they board a luxurious transatlantic liner and begin a journey towards safety.
But when the SS St. Louis docks at Havana, it’s to find that the Cuban government has had a change of heart and changed its visa requirements. All but a handful of the 900 passengers are denied entry into Cuba.
Hannah and her mother are among the lucky ones but her professor father is barred because he has the wrong type of visa. Both the United States and Canadian governments refuse entry to the ship so the captain has little choice but to return to Europe with almost a full complement of passengers.
Juxtaposed 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 of The German Girl unfortunately didn’t work for me. It was irritating at times to switch between the two points of view. I can see why Correa chose that format because it showed clearly the parallels between their situations. Both suffer the loss of a parent at the hands of extremists and both have to grow up quickly to look after their mothers. But the connections often felt forced.
Hannah is more clearly brought to life in this book. She’s has a thoughtful but determined girl who is devoted to her father but has a more distant relationship with her mother, a woman she feels behaves as if she is on a stage. Hannah has a sharp eye for detail, noticing for example, how carefully her mother chooses her outfits and deliberately waits to be the last passenger to board the ship so that all eyes will be upon her.
We learn of Hannah’s fear of the red and black flags draped along every street in Berlin and yet her sadness at having to leave her home. We learn later she never feels at home in Cuba, struggling with the heat and the local customs while experiencing a bitterness that this country separated her from her beloved father.
Armando Lucas Correa has clearly based his debut novel on extensive research into what became known as the “Voyage of the Damned.”. There are extensive notes at the back of the book that explain why Cuba refused to allow entry to the refugees and also what happened to the passengers after the ship was forced to turn back.
It made for sobering reading. The ship’s captain managed to get the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands to accept the passengers but many were later captured in Nazi roundups of Jews. Some historians have estimated that approximately a quarter of them were killed in death camps during World War II.
What touched me deeply was that the book includes a page that bears the signatures of all the ship’s passengers and numerous photographs showing them on board St Louis.
The German Girl was at times a frustrating experience. The sections in Berlin and on board the ship were powerful but the Cuban chapters fell completely flat and the ending was far too sentimental for my tastes. It’s an important book in the way it sheds light on the disgraceful way in which refugees were treated on the eve of a world war but I’m wondering whether it would have worked more effectively as non fiction.
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa: Footnotes
Cuban-born Armando Lucas Correa is an award-winning journalist and the editor of People en Español,, the top-selling Hispanic magazine in the United States.
The German Girl was published originally in Spanish under the title La Niña Alemana in 2016 and in English translation the same year by Simon and Schuster.