I received this book for free from Simon Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Title: The German Girl
Author: Armando Lucas Correa
Song: Erlkönig by Franz Schubert
Published: October 18th, 2016 # of Pages: 368
Date Started: October 16th, 2016 Date Ended: October 16th, 2016
Category: Fiction, Historical, Retelling (someone’s actual life story)
“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 plot was absolutely BREATH TAKING. I swear to you all; I was a sobbing mess for over 95% of this book. That’s how emotional I got when reading it. It was THAT good. In the opening we met one of our female leads, Hannah who lived in Berlin in the year 1939. Then Anna who lives in New York in 2014. In the opening we get a background story of these two characters. Explaining what each was doing during their time. The rising action was extraordinary. It showed us what was going on with Hannah, “the German girl.” With how her family and herself had to flee Germany and go to Cuba. Or at least attempt to get there. Where with Anna, she received a parcel from Cuba. From her great aunt Hannah, the woman she was named after by her father Louis. Curious with her gift she decides to go to Cuba with her mother to discover what it meant. And when we got to the climax of the story, I truly was heart broken and burst into tears. Family stripped away from one another in a new place. Only to never see each other again, to only receive a rare letter once and a while explaining what was going on. Hannah had been on a great ship with her family and her closest friend Leo, whom she loved. But suddenly chaos struck and they lost one another. At this point in the novel, we are mostly hearing what is going on with Hannah and her family on the St. Louis. The greatest ship of the time, one that wouldn’t sink like the Titanic. When the falling action begins we start to hear the story of Hannah told to Anna, once they meet in person. Now this part of the story really got me in the FEELS. Hannah’s story was heartbreakingly beautiful at this point in time. And I felt really connected with her. She grew up no longer in Berlin where she spent the first 12 years of her life, but in Cuba. A new land for her and her family. The only place that would take them. I swear to you I am not lying when I say I was a sobbing mess by this point in the novel. And once we got to the conclusion? I was just a puddle of tears and feels. The ending was just written so beautifully, so powerful. That I couldn’t help but cry. The emotions in this story where so raw, so fresh as if the incident of it all had just happened. Like I was there living it. It was horrible but beautiful at the same time. A dark and a light in a way. And for that, I salute the author, for being able to make me feel this way.
Now the characters, oh the wonderful characters the author created and made grow. Their developments where intense and yet again heartbreaking. I just couldn’t handle the fact that certain characters wouldn’t be able to play or grow up together at a certain part. They made me sob, laugh, and smile. And I loved them so much that it hurt. First we had our female lead(s). I say leads because there were two females that were very important to the novel. Miss Hannah Rosenthal, a 12-year-old little girl who lived in Berlin, Germany 1939 with her parents before going onto the St. Louis with them and her close friend Leo (who I’ll discuss about in a moment). She was curious, brave, happy, and very creative. She loved playing with her friend Leo and taking photos. Without a care in the world except that she was un-pure, and seen as “The German Girl.” She hadn’t really gotten to live the life of a child. She had to grow up so fast and quick that her life basically flashed before her life. Moving to a new place in Cuba and spending the rest of her days there. She took care of her mother and family, she never broke her promises or lied. Heck she even kept one promise to her grave. Quite literally might I add. Now moving into the most recent years, 2014 with Miss Anna. The child of Louis, old aunt Hannah’s nephew who she practically raised. Anna is a only child who lives with the constant question, when will father come home? One day he left before she was born, and he never came back. That is, until one day she receives a package from Cuba, from her great aunt Hannah the woman who raised her father. Inside, photographs and a magazine with a little girl named, “The German Girl” who looked exactly like Anna. Wanting to find out more Anna talks her mother into taking her to Cuba to visit her great aunt Hannah to find out who the little girl and boy was in the photos. Anna is a curious spirit, just like how Hannah was all those years ago. She is loving and keeps her promises just like her great aunt. Both of these girls/women are very important to the novel because without them their story would be incomplete. Now besides them we also had our Male leads/supporting males, since we didn’t get to read about them for very long before disaster struck (read the book to understand what disaster I am talking about). We had 12-year-old Leo, Hannah’s best friend. They always played and chased each other. He was curious, free, and surprisingly always knew what was going to happen, just like magic. He had long eyelashes and shaggy hair. He was the only friend Hannah had. And oh did they love each other. And it was because of him that Hannah made the promise she took to the old age of 87. “We will stay together until we are 87…” this part especially had me teary eyed and basically a ball of FEELS. He was so innocent and happy; it broke me to read what happened to him. Or at least what Hannah thought happened to him. We also had our supporting/minor characters, who in my opinion where just as important as the mains (yes this partially includes little Leo). We had Julian, who was a very good friend of Hannah when she was older. “Farewell my Anna with a J” again I sobbed like a baby when I read this part. Then we had Alma &a Max Rosenthal, Hannah’s parents. Gustavo & Viera, Hannah’s brother and someone special to him. And lastly Louis, Anna’s father. We also had Anna’s mother but we never quite know her name. Without all of these characters the story DEFINITELY wouldn’t have been as brilliant as it was. And I know I missed some other characters but to me, all of them were just beautiful and I know for a fact that I will never forget their names. Their story, is one I will love forever.
I HIGHLY recommend you all go buy this novel and read it for yourself. The story is heart-melting and mind blowing. Plus, at the end when we see the list of all the actual passengers on board the St. Louis, I really want to know their stories. What happened that day, and I wish that Canada had let them in. Even though I know in our history they never did. I sobbed and laughed and cried so much during this novel. That’s how much this story got to me. I wish one day I can meet the brilliant author so I could tell him how much his story meant to me. One day….
Congratulations Armando Lucas Correa on such a eye opening, moving piece of literature. I look forward to reading more from you in the future. And hopefully one day, meeting you.
Guest Post from Armando Lucas Correa
The Saint Louis Mexican
By Armando Lucas Correa
Last May 13th, on the 77th anniversary of the sailing of the Saint Louis luxury liner from the port of Hamburg with more than 900 Jewish refugees on board fleeing Nazi Germany for Cuba, I placed a photo of the ship and my novel, The German Girl, on my Facebook page.
Seconds later, an artist friend who lives in Mexico, Silvia Gruner, wrote a comment on that post. Silvia, whom I’ve known since the 80s when we both lived in Cuba, wrote that her mother and grandparents were onboard that ship, and she believed her aunts and uncles had also made the journey with them.
My heart started beating faster. I had interviewed two survivors, now 92 and 79 who were kids when they were onboard, but this other German girl was related to a friend of mine and spoke Spanish! Silvia sent me their last name, Karman, and I found them all on the ship’s manifest: her mother, Annemarie; her grandparents, Sidonia y Richard; her aunt and uncle, Kathe and Karl.
Annemarie, today Ana Maria Gordon, 81, lives in Canada, Silvia told me. She moved there from Mexico seven years ago to be closer to her oldest son who works in the University of Toronto.
When Cuba denied her and the rest of the Jewish refugees entry —only 28 were allowed to remain on the island—and the governments of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie also turned them away from the U.S. and Canada, the Saint Louis passengers ended up in Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland. Only the 287 who were allowed to stay in England survived the ravages of war. Many of the others ended up in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps.
Ana Maria and her family ended up in Holland. When the Nazis occupied that country, they were sent to different concentration camps. During the liberation, while Nazis were still killing Jews, Ana Maria’s mom passed her off as Dutch and they were able to escape. They later reunited with her father and were able to get in touch with an uncle who lived in Mexico.
That’s how Ana Maria and her parents ended up in that country, how she learned to speak Spanish and became a Mexican national, how she married a Mexican Jew and had four children.
Ironically, Ana Maria now lives in Canada, a country that initially rejected her. She is truly one of the real German girls. Just like Hannah, the main character in my novel, she ran on the decks of the Saint Louis, held hope that an island in the Caribbean —one that had charged her family a small fortune for entry permits— would save her life.
Even today, the shadow of the Saint Louis is alive and well all around the world in the fear of the other, the refugee, the one whose skin color is different. That fear makes some look away in another human being’s hour of need. But those who look away must be reminded that, in the end, we’re all refugees.
Memories are what you no longer want to remember. ~ Joan Didion
Don’t forget me, Papa. I want to be your pupil again, to learn the geography of far-off continents. And to dream, simply dream. (page 50)
I was all alone. In an instant, I knew what it was like to be without my parents. And I also knew it would not be the last time. (page 79)
I also see there a faded leather notebook, and the small blue box my aunt has never opened, keeping the promise she made on the shop a long time ago. (page 296)
I’ve reached the age we promised we would share together. Remember, Leo? (page 319)