Fiction — print. Mira, 2007. Originally published 2001. 395 pgs. Gift.
Nineteen-year-old Emma Bau has been married only three weeks when Nazi tanks thunder into her native Poland. Within days Emma’s husband, Jacob, is forced to disappear underground, leaving her imprisoned within the city’s decrepit, moldering Jewish ghetto. But then, in the dead of night, the resistance smuggles her out. Taken to Krakow to live with Jacob’s Catholic cousin, Krysia, Emma takes on a new identity as Anna Lipowski, a gentile
Emma’s already precarious situation is complicated by her introduction to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking Nazi official who hires her to work as his assistant. Urged by the resistance to use her position to access details of the Nazi occupation, Emma must compromise her safety – and her marriage vows – in order to help Jacob’s cause. As the atrocities of war intensify, so does Emma’s relationship with the Kommandant, building to climax that will risk not only her double life, but also the lives of those she loves.
Jenoff’s novel begins slowly with Emma and the little boy she is hidden with, Lukasz, out shopping for food, but the story quickly picks up its pace, immediately grabbing me in the next chapter and refusing to let me go. I kept turning those pages, and I was very annoyed when I had to put it down to go out to eat with my family.
The novel, Jenoff’s first, is told from Emma’s point of view, but it’s beautifully written, a rarity with first-person accounts. It’s impossible to hate Emma/Anna or, even, the Kommandant, as both have redeeming, humane qualities. And Jenoff doesn’t allow the read to side-step the ethical dilemmas raised, especially Emma’s decision to betray her husband for the greater good of her people. Emma’s struggles to accept herself, especially her feelings for the Kommandant, had me on the verge of tears on several occasions.
Jenoff has written a brilliant debut novel, and I cannot wait to pick up the next book in the series.