Reviewed by Martha Artyomenko
Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Auschwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks.
As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They mean to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.
Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her home. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.
But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.
Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.
This is a highly unusual book and story. Our heroine is very young when the story begins and while this book is fiction, a tale is told that rivals non-fiction stories of survivors that I have read from this time period. It is not graphic, but detailed without as much of the horror. You see the story though the eyes of a child in the beginning. In the middle, a young woman and in the end, a woman. While there is a romantic story line that completes this book, that is not the focus of the story. This is a wonderful book, about the means of survival that many refugees, Holocaust survivors, orphans and others experienced during WW2 and even today.
I enjoyed the unique voice the author gave to Gretl as well as to Jakob. It was highly unusual and deep writing. If you enjoy a book that will make you think and dig into history, pick this one up!