on May 21, 2004
Those Who Save Us was one of the most riveting books I've ever read. The characters are vividly drawn, believable, and most of all, compelling. For those who haven't read the novel yet, its cover illustration and blurb might lend one to suspect that it's a book about the holocaust. For me, the holocaust was incidental and a mere backdrop to what unfolded as a story about shame. As a physician, I understand how devastating the feeling of shame can be for a person, and through Ms. Jenna Blum's heart-wrenching and beautifully written prose, I have gained a deeper appreciation for its tragic consequences to the human soul. I couldn't put it down. In addition to friends and family, I am highly recommending Those Who Save Us for my colleagues in medicine, who will be reminded that humans are more than just two-dimensional beings, and until one's skin is peeled layer by layer, the guilt and shame that rest deep within the heart may remain forever hidden.
on April 28, 2004
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.
on May 18, 2004
This is a truly terrific novel, one that weaves new definitions of victim and guilt into the familiarly horrific landscape of Nazi Germany.
Alternating between Weimar, Germany in the early days of World War II and the present day mid-American panorama of Minnesota, Jenna Blum gives us a vivid, though tortuous picture of the conflicts presented to Anna as she struggles to make sense of Third Reich atrocities against the Jews, and their insensitivity to the everyday hardships of non-Jewish German civilians.
As difficult a time as this is for Anna, a young woman who finds dangerous love in the person of Max, a Jewish veternarian, whom she hides from the SS in the home that she shares with her father, her situation is complicated by the discovery and incarceration of Max in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and the subsequent birth of Trudie, her daughter with Max.
The devasting emotional consequences that arise from Anna's having to choose between the safety of herself and her daughter, and the acquiesance to the constant, and often brutal, advances of the Obersturmfuher of Buchenwald are detailed with frightening detail that ultimately leads Anna, many years later, to conclude that "we come to love those who save us". Equally striking is the eventual realization by Trudie, through a combination of years spent doggedly pursuing the truths of this era and plain luck, of the true nature of her monthers distant deportment over the years since their migration to America.
This is a novel that reads like reality, and a "must read".
on May 14, 2004
I had promised myself that after completing a dissertation that required me to unearth awful narratives of torture and pain from the Holocaust and apartheid South Africa that I would not pick up another book about these subjects again. It was simply too painful. But Ms. Blum's novel broke the silence for me.
I could not stop turning the pages, wanting more and more of her painful, poignant insights into the complexities of human survival, guilt, and love. This story of two women who go to EXTREMES to survive SIMPLY is riveting. The way in which Ms. Blum delves into their psyches, their need for human contact in times of duress, the complicated decisions they have to make in order to survive, and their uncompromising wills is so compelling, so truly human, that I overcame my fears of engaging in another difficult story of WWII. I was, instead, transported by the universality of their stories in the specifics of their situation, the human within inhuman circumstances. Never once did Ms. Blum fall into sentimenalism or try to shock for shock's sake. Every scene, every moment, was carefully written, painted in its truth and density with masterful language and a keen eye and ear for her characters. This book was a profound, beautiful exploration of humanity. I reccommend it with passion. Kudos on a brilliant first novel, Ms. Blum!
on June 1, 2004
The difference is that this novel is told from the perspectives of both a "good German" and a survivor's child. The intertwining of the two tales is remarkable. Other strong pluses are the portrayal of life in a frozen Minnesota landscape, as well as the totally realistic explorations of the complex role which having the upper hand plays in relationships between lovers and between parent and child. A most satisfying ending is also rare these days!
This is a book to own, cherish, and reread.
on January 23, 2011
I just finished reading Those Who Save Us and it's really the type of book that you can't stop reading to get to the end, though you never really want it to end. I could have read so much more about Trudy and Anna's history in Germany during WWII. It was beautifully written and very captivating. I would recommend this to everyone I know!
on April 12, 2004
There is nothing better than getting a book that grabs you in the first paragraph....this book did for me. I went from wanting
to read until my eyes couldn't read any more, to putting it down because I didn't want it to end. Absolutly wonderful book. I would highly suggest this book! ! !
on March 5, 2012
This book broke my heart; it is the beautifully written story of a girl doing a documentary on world war two through the perspective of germans. It ends up being about the main characters own memories and those of her mothers; reading this book i cried, laughed, gasped, smiled and was amazed. This book fulfils what a book is ideally to do, it makes you feel.
on September 20, 2012
One of the best books I have read about WW2. I have a shelf and a half of WW2 books, and this was something different. From the german perspective, which I have been looking for. Somehow, we never considered what the German people had to go through being anti-nazi in this period. Congratulations to Jenna Blum.
on September 16, 2010
This book initially came up because I was looking for books about the holocaust, but really, the story is not what you would normally expect. It is really about how the war/holocaust affected a regular German civilian (who was of course sympathetic to the plight of the Jews.) The novel touches on so many different themes; self discovery, mother/child relationship, moral vs. physical survival and man/woman relationship. I wasn't going to read this book because I have recently read so many holocaust stories but I am so glad I did. It is a fresh new angle at the issue as well as bringing up related subjects I didn't know existed. I highly recommend this book!