Book Review: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

blum

Rating: 5 / 5

Anna Schlemmer lived in Germany during the Second World War, and after she moved with her younger daughter Trudy, to America, she has refused to talk about those years.  While living with her father, Anna falls in love with the neighborhood doctor, Max, and runs away when her father discovers her secret and has the doctor arrested.  Anna apprentices with a baker, who knew Max, and it is there that she spends the war years, trying to survive and raise Trudy.

Trudy is now in her 50s, a well respected professor of Germany history.  Her mother has never spoken about Trudy’s childhood in Germany, and has never mentioned Max, or the SS Officer who took Anna in as his mistress. Inspired by a co-workers project to document the plight of Jewish survivors, Trudy begins her own project, interviewing Germans living in Germany during the war.  It is through this project that Trudy finally begins to understand what her mother went through, and begins to reveal the past her mother has refused to discuss.

The bottom line is that Those Who Save Us is utterly compelling and moving.  I’ve got a soft spot for WWII novels, and after reading my fair share of them, I’ve got to say that Those Who Save Us ranks as one of the best.  It’s different than most historical novels of this time period because it is from a German woman’s perspective.  Although they did not perpetuate the war or personally harm any Jews, middle to lower class Germans also suffered.  Not being an officer or affluent, they were on rations and struggled to make ends meet.  Anna’s story is particularly tragic as she didn’t have an opportunity to live her life.  She didn’t have the opportunity at a relationship with the man she loved, and didn’t have the opportunity to raise Trudy in a nurturing and civil environment. Although it might seem cold that she chose to keep her past to herself, it is understandable that she did so because that was the only way to move on.

Those Who Save Us moves between the past and the present, and the past is definitely more interesting and emotional.  This novel is an in-depth look at the atrocities of war, and the guilt that lingers with those who survived.  Those Who Save Us is also about duality of roles that people play; the people who saved Anna and Trudy.  On the surface, the Obersturmfuhrer is painted as a ruthless man, taking Anna as his mistress and doing to her as he pleased.  Invariably, though, he also saved her, for he made sure that Anna and Trudy were fed and clothed, and while they suffered immensely because of the war, they were better off than many of their neighbors.  Anna was looked down upon by her neighbors for sleeping with the Obersturmfuhrer, and when she moved to America, her new neighbors were no kinder than the women in Germany.  But everything Anna did, she did to save Trudy, to give Trudy a better future.

Those Who Save Us is complex, heartfelt, and deeply moving. I loved the way Blum weaved the two stories together, and while the book is heavy and sad, it was extremely well written.

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