Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

49465Fiction — print. Harcourt, 2005. 479 pgs. Library copy.

Told in a duel narrative structure, Blum’s novel largely focuses on the life of Trudy Schlemmer’s mother, Anna, during World War II in Germany with occasionally glimpses into the lives of Trudy and Anna in the United States during the 1990s. A professor of German history at the University of Minnesota, Trudy has launched an audio-visual interview project where she asks non-Jewish Germans about their experiences in Nazi Germany; a project that presumably draws on Blum’s work with the Shoah Foundation, an organization that conducts audio-visual interviews with survivors of the Holocaust.

Anna refuses to discuss her experiences with her daughter insisting that their lives before she and three-year-old Trudy went to live with an American solider in Minnesota are to be forgotten, to be left in the past. Trudy’s only source of information is an old photograph she finds hidden among her aging mother’s possessions: a portrait of Anna, toddler Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmführer of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Trudy is convinced she is the child of a Nazi officer complicating her already tenuous friendship with Reiner, a survivor of the Holocaust, incensed over her determination to apply logic to the explainable, to give voices to those who robbed others of their lives.

Books focusing on the perspective and roles of German women during World War II are rather few and far between possibly because, as Reiner says, these women were complicit in the crimes of the regime and giving them voices opens the door for revisionist history, for absolution and pity of the participants in the Nazi regime. (We could debate this assertion all day, but I would say it is the typical response to questions of whether or not the experience of non-Jewish German women is a worthy field of study.) Anna is immediately cast in a sympathetic light — she hides the Jewish father of a baby, her father is a brute who moves in lockstep with the regime, she risks her life to deliver bread to political prisoners at Buchenwald, she is brutalized and raped by the Obersturmführer — and the German men and women Trudy interviews are unapologetically racist. So, really, the novel skirts the issues it raises by making Anna a truly exceptional case.

Anna is also a difficult character to understand. The loss of Max, her daughter’s father, clearly had a tremendous impact on her as did her treatment at the hands of the Obersturmführer, but to internalize that pain and still allow her daughter to believe her father is a Nazi is unimaginable and unforgivable. She goes to great lengths to protect Trudy (known as Trudie in Germany), to make sure the little girl has enough to eat and a future after the war, but she is so utterly cold towards her daughter that it seems like she blames Trudy for what occurred during the war.

Occasionally, the writing is clunky and dissolves into repetitive ruminations on the sexual acts between the Obersturmführer and Anna. It also took me some time to adjust to the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue of the characters as it is not always clear who is speaking. But, overall, I thought the novel raised some interesting questions about the role of German women in the Holocaust, their culpability, and their guilt. Such questions should, at least, encourage discussion at book club.

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