Title: The German Girl
Author: Armando Lucas Correa
Published: December 1st 2016
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia
Genres: Fiction, Historical, War
Rating: 4 stars
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful debut novel, perfect for fans of Sarah’s Key and All the Light We Cannot See, the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.
In 1939 before everything changed, Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. Her family moved in Berlin’s highest social circles, admired by friends and neighbors. Eleven-year-old Hannah was often taken by her mother for an afternoon treat at the tea room of the beautiful Adlon Hotel, both dressed in their finest clothes. She spent her afternoons at the park with her best friend Leo Martin. But, in an instant, that sunlit world vanished. Now the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; their fine possessions are hauled away, and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. The two friends make a pact: come what may, they promise to have a future together.
As Hannah and Leo’s families desperately begin to search for a means of escape, a glimmer of hope appears when they discover the Saint Louis, a transatlantic liner that can give Jews safe passage to Cuba. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart from Hamburg on the luxurious passenger liner bound for Havana. Life aboard the ship is a welcome respite from the gloom of Berlin—filled with masquerade balls, dancing, and exquisite meals every night.
As the passengers gain renewed hope for a bright future ahead, love between Hannah and Leo blossoms. But soon reports from the outside world began to filter in, and dark news overshadows the celebratory atmosphere on the ship; the governments of Cuba, the United States, and Canada are denying the passengers of the St. Louis admittance to their countries, forcing them to return to Europe as it descends into the Second World War. The ship that had seemed their salvation seems likely to become their death sentence.
After four days anchored at bay, only a handful of passengers are allowed to disembark onto Cuban soil, and Hannah and Leo must face the grim reality that they could be torn apart. Their future is unknown, and their only choice will have an impact in generations to come.
Decades later in New York City on her eleventh birthday, Anna Rosen receives a mysterious envelope from Hannah, a great-aunt she has never met but who raised her deceased father. In an attempt to piece together her father’s mysterious past, Anna and her mother travel to Havana to meet Hannah, who is turning eighty-seven years old. Hannah reveals old family ties, recounts her journey aboard the Saint Louis and, for the first time, reveals what happened to her father and Leo. Bringing together the pain of the past with the mysteries of the present, Hannah gives young Anna a sense of their shared histories, forever intertwining their lives, honoring those they loved and cruelly lost.
The author of The German Girl, Armando Lucas Correa, was a recent guest at a writers festival held in Perth, Western Australia, where I live. Although I was unable to see Armando Lucas Correa, I highly endorse his novel, The German Girl. It is a fitting testament to another sad chapter to World War II’s history and the Jewish people.
The German Girl is a fictionalised account of the events that took place before, on board and after the German ship St Louis set sail in May, 1939. The St Louis departed from Hamburg, Germany and was bound on a voyage to Havana, Cuba. With more than nine hundred passengers on board, mainly German Jewish refugees, these people were hoping to escape the oppressive Nazi regime. Many were in search of freedom from persecution of the Third Reich in a new world, Havana. However, a tragic turn of events occurred and when the St Louis reached the waters of Havana, the ship was refused entry, unable to dock. While a selected few are allowed to disembark and enter Havana, the majority of the ship’s occupants remained on board. The ship was forced to sail on, hoping to find sanction elsewhere but this is an impossible task. Correa chooses to zone his story into one girl, Hannah Rosenthal’s personal experience aboard the St Louis. We follow Hannah and her family as they take a huge fall from grace. In the opening of the novel, the reader learns that the Rosenthals are a wealthy Jewish family. The increasing dominance of the Nazi regime and their hatred for the Jewish people forces this family to flee their home. This leads them to the fateful voyage on the St Louis. The family is torn apart by their decision to travel on the St Louis, a decision that echoes across the decades, impacting on the descendants of the Rosenthal family. We discover this through a package that is discovered by Hannah Rosenthal’s grand-niece years later, which holds the key to the Rosenthal family’s final fate.
The German Girl is a touching and ambitious novel. It is expansive, crossing the continents, as the setting moves effortlessly from Europe, to Cuba and finally the US. It also spans time, covering an era of over seventy years. The German Girl employs the use of two young narrators to unfurl the main events of the story. Hannah Rosenthal is our narrator in the 1939 storyline and Anna, a twelve year old girl and direct descendant of Hannah’s, living in New York in the present day takes on the other storyline. The two stories are separate but eventually they become intertwined, as the tale of the St Louis is revealed. I thought the package delivered in the present that kick starts Anna’s search for the truth to her family’s history was compelling. This signalled Anna’s quest to develop a better understanding of her family’s heritage, which leads her to take a trip to Cuba. This section of the story is emotional and tugs at the heartstrings, I also enjoyed the coming of age tale that emerged from Anna’s journey.
The historical thread surrounding Hannah Rosenthal and her family held slightly more interest for me than Anna, the young narrator’s tale of events in the present. I am always on the hunt for stories to come of out of an era that fascinates me and Correa seemed to fill this void. Prior to reading The German Girl, I am ashamed to say I had not heard of the fate of the St Louis, so I am grateful to the author for raising my awareness to this shameful event in world history. Correa’s level of research in this part of the novel is faultless and I admired his ability to turn a set of real historical events into a profound work of fiction. Correa certainly drew my attention to the fate of these refugees and perhaps a message could be taken away from this terrible event in the past, regarding our treatment of refugees seeking asylum in the present day. My final word on The German Girl are the detailed historical facts and the appendix which lists the passengers aboard the St Louis, contained at the back of the novel. These additions worked to deepen my respect for this novel.
The German Girl is a moving piece of literature that serves to remind of us of the sorrowful incidents that occurred during the Holocaust. Armando Lucas Correa expertly ties together true life events, within an affective narrative. The German Girl is a novel that I imagine will stay with me and you for some time, long after the final page is turned.
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa was published in December 2016 by Simon & Schuster Australia, details on how to purchase the book can be found here.