Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 26, 2018

Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum #BookReview

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum has been on the TBR since at least 2008 when I started recording the date for the books I acquired.  I probably bought it on the strength of the blurb in a Readings Catalogue; but I’ve since discovered that Blum is one of Oprah’s Top 30 Women Writers. But I’m not reading it now because of that… it’s a big thick book and by reading it I’m clearing a space for two less bulky books on the B shelf!

Those Who Save Us is an interesting novel, exploring moral culpability and inter-generational guilt.

There are two linked strands to the novel:

Fifty years after the end of WW2, Trudy Schlemmer is an American academic who teaches German history.  She was born in Weimar in Germany during the war but at the age of three came to America when her mother married an American soldier from the occupying US army.  But she knows almost nothing about her German origins because her mother Anna steadfastly refuses to talk about it.  The only evidence Trudy has is an old family portrait that she found hidden away in her mother’s things.  It’s a photo of her mother, herself and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer at the slave labour camp of Buchenwald near Weimar.  She doesn’t even have his name.

A colleague’s research project triggers Trudy’s interest and she begins interviewing Germans who migrated to the US after the war.  She is searching for answers about German attitudes and behaviour towards the regime, and she gets answers she hadn’t bargained for, including from an unrepentant anti-Semite and also a Holocaust survivor who pretended to be German so that he could lambast her about her project.

Woven between this narrative is the wartime story of Anna, a beautiful young woman then but very vulnerable because of it. However she is a strong-willed and courageous young woman, and when she falls in love with Max, a Jew, she refuses to abide by the law.  Under the anti-Semitic eugenics policies of the time, miscegenation was a crime subject to harsh punishment but Anna ends up pregnant just as his hiding place is discovered and Max is taken away to Buchenwald.  So, to escape her domineering father’s judgement and possible betrayal she runs away to work in a bakery.  She falls on her feet with Mathilde, who adores Anna’s small daughter and protects them both from unwanted attention.  But Mathilde has a double life, and when the Nazis find out about her illegal activities, they arbitrarily execute her and Anna is left vulnerable on her own.

In Anna’s narrative she has to make difficult choices when she is confronted with the reality of life under the Nazi regime.  Will she help Mathilde to provide extra food for the slave labourers in the quarry?  Will she be complicit in receiving extra rations from the Nazis so that her daughter will have enough to eat? Will she submit to the attentions of Horst in order to survive? And when it’s all over, how much will she reveal to the nice young American soldier who takes her to a new life in Minnesota?

Anna’s is a past that is fraught with guilt and shame, and though her silence about it costs her relationship with the daughter she loves, she is determined not to explain.  Blum waves intricate plot lines to bring the narratives together but, avoiding sentimentality, ensures that her character Trudy has to accept that some trauma remains too painful to reveal.

Blum treads a fine line in this story of a ‘good’ German in the Nazi era.  In both narratives, she uses the characters and the plot to show the diversity of responses to the pressures of living in a totalitarian regime, and she doesn’t succumb to suggesting that ordinary people did not know about Nazi activities.  It’s an absorbing story that explores the ambiguous forms of culpability that still haunt Germany today.

Author: Jenna Blum
Title: Those Who Save Us
Publisher: Text Publishing 2005 (first published 2004)
ISBN: 9781920885540
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings $29.95


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