The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

After having seen the book-to-movie film preview for this novel, I purchased a copy, thinking it would be like so many of the historical fiction novels of WWII that I’ve read and enjoyed. Though it was very different, I still enjoyed it very much. It took me quite a bit longer to read it than others, but I believe that is because of the large amount of quotations and well-researched background information. This is a nonfiction narrative based upon the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski during WWII in war-ravaged Warsaw, Poland. Jan was the zookeeper for the well-known and successful Warsaw Zoo. His wife, Antonina, shared a special bond with the animals at the zoo, and her courageous and compassionate personality allowed her to save over 300 people, mostly Jewish, who were seeking refuge from the Nazis during WWII. The reason the Zabinskis were able to hide so many Jewish people on the zoo property and in the villa is because of the Nazis obsession with preserving certain animals in their purification scheme. Were the Nazis not concerned with animals and zoology, Jan and Antonina would likely not have been able to save lives like they did.

The descriptions of exotic zoo animals and even common animals in the story are detailed and realistic. The author clearly completed many hours of extensive research in order to tell the Zabinski’s story, as evidenced by the lengthy chapter-by-chapter details section and the bibliography at the end of the book. This story was different from most of the WWII novels that I normally read because rather than focusing on life in a concentration camp, it detailed the daily life of those living in Poland during the war, which for some was living in constant terror and fear. Because of the wealth of detail and personal stories weaved into the story, this was not a quick read. It took me a while to get through the book, but it was worth the read and I did enjoy it very much.

I look forward to seeing the movie, because I believe it will be a nice complement to the book.

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The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff

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Emma, a young Jewish woman living in Poland during WWII, is forced to assume a new identity as a Polish girl named Anna. A newlywed, Emma’s husband Jacob is in the Jewish resistance group and he is forced to go into hiding just a short time after they are married.  Emma and her parents are taken into the Jewish ghetto to live in cramped quarters with no comforts of home. Luckily, Emma is secretly taken out of the ghetto in the middle of the night by one of the resistance group members. She assumes the role of a Polish gentile named Anna, a niece to a wealthy Catholic woman named Krysia, who is Jacob’s aunt. Krysia is also involved with the resistance but Emma is much safer in her care than in the Jewish ghetto. Fearing for Jacob’s safety, the uncertain future of her aging parents in the ghetto, as well as her own future, Emma must press on, living a life of lies and secrets in order to remain safe from the Nazis.

To complicate matters further, Emma is introduced at Krysia’s dinner party to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking, powerful, and extremely handsome Nazi official. Emma knows she should loathe the Kommandant, but he is sweet, caring, and very much interested in her. “Anna” goes to work for the Kommandant, which allows her to secretly assist the resistance group in gathering information from the Nazis. She never dreamed she would be so comfortable in the presence of a Nazi official, much less spend all her time with him and become his “girl.” As the war intensifies in and around Krakow, Anna gets even closer to the Kommandant in order to carry out a most dangerous mission for the resistance group. Torn between her vows to Jacob and her feelings for Richwalder, Emma must decide which path to take.

When the secrets of her true identity threaten to come out, Emma’s life will never be the same again. The ending will have readers reeling. I cried for Emma, who lost so  very much, but still had the courage to carry on despite the circumstances.  This is a beautifully written story with a fast-paced story-line which readers will enjoy from beginning to end.

Thank you to Harper Collins MIRA for an advanced digital review copy.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

9781101883075_f1cf2Lilac Girls is a beautiful, heartbreaking story of three strong-willed women with very unique backgrounds and circumstances, but each impacted greatly by WWII and the Holocaust.

Kasia, a young Polish teenager was taken by train along with her mother and older sister to an all women’s prison camp, Ravensbruck, where she and her sister Zuzanna were subjected to horrible torture, as “rabbits” for (sulfonamide) experiments.by the Nazis.

Herta, a young German doctor who was given the opportunity to employ her physician’s training at an all women’s work camp, Ravensbruk, reports for duty. Little did she realize that she would be the only female doctor and would be responsible for carrying out lethal injections, and horrible experiments on healthy women prisoners.

American actress and society girl, Caroline Ferriday, spends her days working in the French consulate in New York City. She organizes and sends care packages to French orphans in Paris, but her mission chances dramatically when her love, Paul, a French actor is taken to a prison camp. As Caroline tries to locate Paul, Kasia struggles to survive at Ravensbruk (while many of her friends and mother disappear or worse), Herta continues carrying out horrible experimental surgeries in the medical ward at Ravensbruck.

The novel switches back and forth between Herta, Kasia, and Caroline’s stories, causing readers to always be wondering what will happen next to each character. Though it is a rather  large book, I read through it very quickly because of the fast pace.

When Kelly connects the three women together in Part 3, it is so well written, providing some much needed closure to the characters and to readers. Readers will experience so many emotions while enjoying this novel; and I challenge anyone to read it through with dry eyes.

One of the neatest things about this novel is that it is based upon the actual Caroline Ferriday and her work for the Ravensbruk Rabbits after WWII. Kelly came across an article in Victoria magazine about Caroline and her lilacs, as well as her work with the Ravensbruk Rabbits, and was inspired to write this story. She based Kasia and Herta’s characters off of women she had read about in her extensive research as well.

For a debut novel, I consider this to be a masterpiece. It reminds me of two of my other favorite WWI historical fiction novels, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. Kelly’s website (http://www.marthahallkelly.com) has many additional resources that add a richness to the story, such as maps, photographs of her research journey, and video clips. It is clear that Martha Hall Kelly researched thoroughly in order to give a voice to so many important women affected by the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust. I promise you will enjoy this novel. It is just wonderful.

 

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys will be published on February 2, 2016 by Penguin.

Below is a must-watch video of Ruta Sepetys describing her book. Many thanks to Penguin Teen for providing it.

 

The first thing I want to say is that I do not believe I can actually do this wonderful, beautifully haunting book justice with my review. I read it so quickly (in just over a day) because I couldn’t put it down. It was written for a young adult audience, but I firmly believe that adults would enjoy it just as much, if not so much more than young adults. I’ve read and enjoyed many works of WWII historical fiction, including (to name my favorites) The Storyteller, The Nightingale, and Sarah’s Key, but this book is now at the very top of my favorites list.

This isn’t just another WWII historical fiction based upon the Holocaust, but instead it is about a little-known disaster which affected over 10,000 people as they tried to desperately leave war-torn homelands in a race for survival. Much like the Holocaust, the sinking of the Wilhem Gustloff is horrifying and devastating. Unlike the Holocaust, however, history has chosen to keep this disaster quiet, even though it is the single greatest maritime disaster in history, much larger in terms of lost lives than the Titanic or the Lusitania.

Here are the facts: The Wilhem Gustloff, a former cruise ship, set out into the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea on the evening of January 30, 1945. The ships capacity was 1,463, but there were actually 10,573 passengers on board. Of these, it is estimated that there were over 5,000 children. Other large groups of passengers on board included injured German soldiers and pregnant or new mothers with infants. The ship was equipped for 22 lifeboats, but only 12 were actually on the ship when it set sail. Around 9:15 PM, about 25 nautical miles offshore, the Wilhem Gustloff was struck by 3 Russian torpedoes and completely sunk within 1 hour after being hit. A total of 9,343 people perished, either on the ship or floating in the dark, icy waters of the unforgiving Baltic Sea.

It’s very clear that the author extensively and thoroughly researched the historical events retold in the story. She stayed true to historical fact. There are author’s notes and research & sources sections at the back of the book which are interesting and also heartbreaking to read. They give details from actual survivors, as well as stories from family members of those who didn’t survive the tragedy.

The pace of the book is quick, with short chapters, switching back and forth between 4 different young character’s points of view. Joana, a young nurse from Lithuania, Emilia, a young Polish girl, Florian, a young Prussian art restorer and forger, and Alfred, a German sailor with high regard for himself, but little regard for others. Each of these young people have a past haunting them and a future completely based upon trying to survive the war and evacuate before it’s too late. Their paths cross on the way to the Wilhem Gustloff. All but Alfred have suffered great loss at the hands of Hitler and the war. The characters are all from different nations, youth who have had to leave everything behind and suffer great loss, though they held no part in causing such catastrophe and strife. Joana, Emilia, Florian, along with an old shoemaker known as Poet, a 5 year old orphaned boy named Kraus, a blind girl named Ingrid, and a large, loud woman named Eva form a makeshift family, as they stick together on their way to the port. Each has only a tiny shred of hope, but together they are capable of loving and caring for one another, even when they thought they had nothing left to give. The relationships between the characters is heartbreaking, real, and so very beautiful. I will never forget them or their stories.

I cannot say enough about this wonderful book. I would encourage you to read it and pass it on to as many people as you can, so that those affected by this tragedy are never forgotten. As Ruta Sepetys says, “When the survivors are gone, we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please, give them a voice.”