You may think you have read or seen all there is around World War II – Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nightingale… but there is another story to tell. Based on the true story of German refugees on the SS St Louis who were promised a home in Cuba, Armando Lucas Correa brings characters to life so you can feel the anxiety, fear and hope that people felt fleeing the Holocaust.
Hannah is twelve years old and is the stereotypical Aryan girl with blonde hair and an angelic face which belies her Jewish background. Her family had always been well-off and her mother was the envy of the neighbourhood with her beautiful dresses and style, up until Hitler’s rise to power.
The world, and their community’s opinions, soon changed and Hannah’s family were no longer admired. Hannah’s best friend Leo had a different time of it as his face was much more that of the stereotyped Jew and his family were from a different class. No matter their differences, they were best friends, determined to look out for each other. Both of their parents decide to flee Berlin and eventually find their way onto the SS St Louis, which should have taken them to safety.
Correa then flits to modern times, 70 years after these events, where young Anna Rosen in New York receives a package from her great-aunt Hannah, whose existence was entirely unknown to her beforehand.
The story switches back and forth between the exodus from Berlin, the voyage to Cuba and modern day New York, slowly revealing what happened to the unlucky passengers and how it relates to Anna.
The beginning of the book is very confronting, even for a book about World War II, as the first line is by Hannah and says, “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.” Persist, as it is explained and in the context of uncertainty, death and discrimination through a child’s eyes, it does make sense.
While this is Correa’s first novel, he is no stranger to writing, having been a journalist and editor for 20 years. Born in Cuba, although now living in America, Correa depicts the people, climate and cities of Cuba in a remarkably realistic manner, as well as the claustrophobia of Jewish people living in Germany. Correa has set out to show the world a part of history that Cuba and America have tried to keep quiet for so long – the fact that they turned away Jewish refugees, knowing that they faced death. At the end of the novel, the names of passengers are listed with the crew and photos.
Translated from the original Spanish by Nick Caistor, it is not obvious that this is a translation as the language and story flows naturally.
The German Girl is not a comfortable read but is a fascinating and thought-provoking story based on fact and it is very easy to then put yourself in Hannah’s shoes and also draw parallels with what is happening with Australia’s refugee policies today.
Reviewed by Michelle Baylis
Rating out of 10: 6
Published by: Simon and Schuster Australia
Release Date: December 2016
RRP: $29.99 paperback, $17.99 ebook