Review of THOSE WHO SAVE US, by Jenna Blum
It's been quite some time since I've read a novel that I had difficulty putting down, and I read a lot of contemporary fiction. Perhaps the toughest criticism Jenna Blum will face is that her readers will complain they couldn't get anything else done until the book was finished. Of course, the story is compelling all on its own--the German/German-American take on Nazi brutality and the whole experience of guilt and shame as survivors in their own right--BUT, there are many compelling stories and not all of them make a reader hunger for the next intelligent, unusual turn of phrase. The experience of reading such rich, vivid language--words that have the power to create a certain tangibility in place and character--is what distinguishes her novel from others I might also say are "page-turners." The prose is lush, here, palpable in a way that brought me inside each and every scene.
Given her topic, readers will do a significant amount of hand-wringing until the last page is turned (crying, gasping, cringing at the brutality). There's Horst's sexual shenanigans and then the violence aimed at children (Rainer's brother's murder and Trudy's German subject with the eye patch). Within my Jewish community I know many, many Holocaust survivors, their children and also their grandchildren; while all support the idea of keeping this kind of history alive through well-researched fiction and non-fiction, some shy away from actually reading about such things (too painful, especially for those who survived the conflagration themselves or who, like my husband, listened to parents crying out in their sleep with nightmares). I would say that all should--all MUST--read it because along with the pain and suffereing Blum portrays, she offers her readers the possibility of tremendous redemption from the intergenerational guilt that surviorship engenders.
An important message about guilt and redemption is at the heart of THOSE WHO SAVE US. While I don't think a parallel can ever be made between what the Jewish people and Germans such as Anna and Pfeffer suffered from the Nazis in WWII, Blum reminds us that suffering was pervasive, that there was a hefty pricetag attached to survival for all because it often involved some form of character degradation (whether one became an SS whore like Anna or a Frau Kluge type extorting valuables from the Jews and then turning her victims in anyway); from this a lifetime of torment followed. Blum captures the ugly reality of human desperation, what is oddly within the realm of the norm when the topic is war. That she has portrayed this from the German perspective elevates it to a universal quality of suffering that offers the possibility of universal expiation. Even someone as sinister as her Obersturmfuhrer in the novel can be tossed into the pot of war troubles and deprivations fomenting during this period in history that made it roil with atrocities.
Of all Blum's characters, I was most drawn to Anna and her steadfast adherence to keeping her past a secret. I loved when her daughter Trudy finally understood that her mother had a right to her silence, that it was an individual "choice." While I sympathized with Trudy's quest for the truth, it was really Anna's view that grabbed me by the softest underbelly of my recent experience with losing my mother and said: Hey! I have a right to secrecy, you know! It's MY life not yours! (Do we children ever cease to be greedy beasts, however old or grown up we become?) I wish to thank Blum for Anna's reminder to let such things as a mother's private matters (her pain?) pass into the dust with her if that was her wish.
History, itself, should never pass into the dust, however. This novel could easily be one of those rare historical works which will be vital reading for the generations coming up. For it is the descendents of WWII's survivor population (I include Jews AND Gentiles here) as well as everyone everywhere who will need a glaring reminder in the future of this war's particular brand of brutality. Kudos to Blum for not sanitizing the heinousness of war, and for so thoughtfully and graphically rendering fact into the most engaging fictional form.