The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa – truth of inhumanity
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.
24 thoughts on “The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa – truth of inhumanity”
Oh, one last note… you say that “until the early part of this century, [this] was not even publicly acknowledged.” Um… I beg to differ on that. Jews knew about, and talked about the St. Louis since it happened. And that book, Voyage of the Damned, it was published in 1974 to wide acclaim, and the shame of the incident and public acknowledgement that went so far as to having a star-studded film version of the book made in 1976. Okay, so the film was a bit cheesy, but still… the story has been out there for… ever!
Thanks for joining my #ThrowbackThursday! You know, you might want to read some non-fiction books about this horrible time in history, like Voyage of the Damned by Gordon Thomas.
This sounds like a really fascinating book, about a terrible injustice in history. Such a shame it fell somewhat flat, I hate it when I am let down at the end particularly.
I tend to be wary of books which fictionalise WW2 and the Holocaust, particularly as I sense a tendency to soften the narrative. Definitely agree that things like this are often better as non-fiction.
I knew their was a ship of refugee Jews turned back by the Americans, but no more than that. As with all Holocaust stories I’d rather read memoir than fiction, and I’m not sure I’d trust an author who needed both the Holocaust and 9/11 to make his fiction interesting.
Try Voyage of the Damned by Gordon Thomas.
It takes great skill to handle dual narratives well and it doesn’t sound as if it comes off with this one. A shame, as it sounds an important book.
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As Cleopatra says, it’s not easy to balance dual timelines – I often find the historical one more interesting than the more modern-day story – but I’m sorry to hear it doesn’t work here, especially as this book is waiting patiently on my TBR.
You may find your reaction differs Kath. Perhaps now I have managed your expectations however
It feels like a cheap swipe see pathos to include 9/11. Would both generations be so closely tied to two unique tragedies? Unlikely. I also wonder if their mirrored feelings after tragedy seemed repetitive when you were reading.
The 9/11 reference did seem rather stretched and unnecessary. Having the father killed in a road accident or a shooting would surely have worked just as well unless the author was trying to make a point about the tragedy that ensures when one nation/belief system hates another?
Sounds like two types of what we might call “history porn” – which is where an author usurps an historical tragedy to try to sensationalize their novel. In this case, it would be Holocaust Porn and 9/11 Porn. Juxtaposing these two events just seems… wrong and frankly, disrespectful to both the victims and survivors of both events.
So does the bulk of the story take place on the water then? It sounds like quite a interesting perspective. And of course, timely.
A large chunk in the middle does but then of course we have to find out what happened to Hannah in Cuba so ultimately most of the action is land based
Sounds like a great story. I don’t know why this split time thing is so prevalent these days. It bothers me too.
I dont know why so many authors use it either Judy. Sometimes it works really well but not enough to justify its popularity
What you found disappointing can be a reoccurring theme in dual narratives, it takes an exceptional author to keep the two threads both relevant and interesting.
Thats an excellent point Cleopatra. The dual narrative approach does seem to be used more and more especially when there is a historical connection, but it often des t work well.
What a shame, and what a wasted opportunity. It’s frustrating when a book does that to you…..
Every time I get t the modern day narrative I was tempted to skim read it.
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