Armando Lucas Correa's first novel is a well written tale that weaves between the past and present to tell the story of Hannah, a young and beautiful German girl of Jewish descent who--through no fault of her own--finds herself unwelcome in a changing Berlin. Twelve year old Hannah understands her situation in the way that only a child can, with fear, anger and, surprisingly, optimism. Along with her friend Leo, they travel the streets of Berlin, but danger and prejudice is all around them, and their parents are desperate to find a safer place to life. Soon Hannah's family find themselves as first class passengers on the SS Saint Louis, and a new adventure begins. Hannah's days exploring the ship with Leo are happy ones, but a darker reality--politics and broken promises--await as the ship nears Cuba. Hannah and her mother are among the few people permitted to alight the ship and make a new life in Cuba. Meanwhile, in 2014, eleven year old Anna, is living in New York, when she receives a mysterious parcel from her Great Aunt Hannah whom she has never met, and she begins to unravel a family history stained by disappointment, revolution and survivor's guilt ...
I have been interested in the story of the SS St Louis for a long time, and often point to it as an example of how humanity does not always learn lessons from the past, and consequently, I was thrilled when the opportunity arose for me to read and review The German Girl. In some ways, reading this was tough-going. Anna's story makes it clear that Hannah was one of the few who made it to Cuba, and I found myself wondering what kind of woman she had become in her old age. Had life been good to her? Well, the answer to that one is certainly subjective, and, I think left up to the reader to decide. Unlike many she and her mother were allowed to stay in Cuba. This also meant being separated from a father who later suffers the same horrific fate as the majority of the 900 passengers who eventually found refuge in Europe. (Only the 287 passengers who were given refuge by Great Britain survived the war.) Hannah and Leo are separated and Hannah needs no one to tell her Leo's fate. In Cuba, she remains a stranger in a strange land, though her brother, who is born shortly after their arrival, has a very different perspective. There are some interesting parallels between Nazi Germany and the Cuban revolution. Even in her old age, Hannah seems to be something of a stranger in the country where she has spent most of her life.
The writing is beautiful, and the story is certainly tragic. At times this one was painful to read, but it was also an education and a reminder of the real people and situations that lie behind headlines and some of our lowest points in history.
It's also a timely reminder to think about the way we treat people who are forced to flee their homes--many of them younger than Hannah and Leo--and what little we know of their suffering, both internal and external.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Australia for my copy of The German Girl.
Armando Lucas Correa will be appearing at Adelaide Writers' Week to talk about the German Girl. Catch him at 1:15pm on Saturday March 4 on the East Stage or at 10:45am on Sunday March 5 on the East Stage.