Thursday, 24 October 2019

REVIEW - THE RABBIT GIRLS BY ANNA ELLORY

Title: The Rabbit Girls
Author: Anna Ellory
Genre: General Fiction, Women's Fiction
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing, Amazon Publishing
Release Date: 1st September 2019

BLURB from Goodreads
Berlin, 1989. As the wall between East and West falls, Miriam Winter cares for her dying father, Henryk. When he cries out for someone named Frieda – and Miriam discovers an Auschwitz tattoo hidden under his watch strap – Henryk’s secret history begins to unravel.
Searching for more clues of her father’s past, Miriam finds an inmate uniform from the Ravensbrück women’s camp concealed among her mother’s things. Within its seams are dozens of letters to Henryk written by Frieda. The letters reveal the disturbing truth about the ‘Rabbit Girls’, young women experimented on at the camp. And amid their tales of sacrifice and endurance, Miriam pieces together a love story that has been hidden away in Henryk’s heart for almost fifty years.
Inspired by these extraordinary women, Miriam strives to break through the walls she has built around herself. Because even in the darkest of times, hope can survive.


PURCHASE LINKS
Amazon UK

REVIEW
This first thing that drew me to the book were the title and cover. The initial image on the cover that made me want to learn more was the feather that prominently features on the blue background. It wasn’t until after I had read the book that I actually noticed the image of the Auschwitz concentration camp in the lower section of the book cover. Once I read the blurb, I knew I wanted to read this book, I seem drawn to stories of holocaust survivors and their families. I guess it’s because I feel that it is important that their stories are told, heard and most importantly remembered too. The genres I saw listed for the book before I read it were General Fiction and Women’s Fiction but after reading the book, I would list Historical Fiction, Holocaust and World War 2 to the listing. This book covers some really serious yet varying subjects from World War 2, the Holocaust, marital infidelity, censorship, domestic violence, obsessive compulsive disorder and self-harm to name just some of them.



The main characters are Miriam and her father Henryk. The book is set in Germany around the time the Berlin Wall is being torn down. Miriam has escaped a rather warped, controlling, relationship with her husband Axel. Miriam has heard her father is dying and has literally fled her marriage where she is subject to domestic violence on a daily basis. Miriam knows its only a matter of time before Axel turns up to retrieve her and unleash his temper and violence on her for having the audacity to run away from him. Miriam is determined to nurse her father in the family home, she never got the chance to even visit her mother when she became ill years earlier. Axel almost prevented her from attending the funeral at all. In fact, she missed part of the funeral only arriving at the wake afterwards and briefly speaking to her father. So, when she is notified that her father, Henryk is actually dying and an opportunity to escape Axel arises she quickly takes it. The way Axel has treated Miriam, she is a scared, very apprehensive, self-doubting woman. To be honest the title being “The Rabbit Girls” is fitting in more than the way it is intended as I would liken the character of Miriam to a timid rabbit. Miriam has her own little rituals and obsessions she has to complete to feel any kind of peace at all. From placing a feather between the door and its frame so she can tell if anyone has opened the front door when she goes out. Though she doesn’t go out much, only when absolutely necessary. The book begins with Miriam caring for her father, Henryk, by washing him and whilst doing so moving his watch strap revealing some numbers tattooed on his arm. Miriam immediately associates this number with the war, yet doesn’t know why her father has this marking as her parents have never spoken about it, or the war to her either when she was a child or an adult. It’s whilst seeking comfort surrounded by the fragrance lingering on the dresses in her mother’s wardrobe that Miriam comes across a bag she hasn’t ever noticed before. The item in the bag is a dress, but not something she would have expected her mother to have in her possession….it is an old, worn, faded striped dress made from rough material. The dress is the uniform worn in concentration camps by women. It’s whilst handling the dress, feeling it’s texture whilst trying to understand why her mother had this uniform yet Miriam had never seen it before or even knew her parents had been in a camp at all during the war that she discovers letters and notes have been sewn into the different and hidden the seams and sections of the dress.


The letters are in both German and French which presents Miriam with a problem as she can read one language and not the other. Miriam takes a rare trip out, briefly leaving her father to go to the library hoping to find a dictionary to help translate the letters or better still find someone who could translate the letters for her. Miriam finds a young man who suggests his mother would be able to translate the letters. 

The book then covers the friendship and trust that Miriam and Eva build slowly with each other. Miriam has a lot to cope with and very little support around her. Naturally Miriam is finding it difficult coping with caring for her father knowing that no matter what she does he is still going to die. When her father calls out the name Frieda which Miriam discovers is the writer of the letters, she is determined to find out what happened to Frieda. Maybe if she is alive her father Henryk, may want to see her before he dies. Miriam also wishes to learn how, and why her father has numbers tattooed on his arm and what he went through during the war. Miriam is curious as to why neither of her parents ever mentioned anything to her. During the book Miriam does have help from Eva with the letter translation but she has interference from her husband Axel. Axel has always played mind games with Miriam, and when he attacks her and no one believes he has raped her, putting the assault down as a domestic dispute Miriam finally decides to make a stand, she wants a divorce. Unfortunately for Miriam Axel is far from finished with her. Making professionals think she is unfit to care for her father, that in fact maybe it would be a good idea is she was placed in a mentally facility herself! Axel turns out to be a very disturbed and wicked, evil man. Some of the things he subjects Miriam too are things that the Nazi’s did to women in concentration camps. Cutting their hair, regular beatings, taking any control over their own bodies or life away. Axel really is as sadistic as the Nazis.

I really admired the character of Frieda, who is initially a student in a class that Professor Henryk is teaching. They have similar ideals and when the Nazis begin restricting what books they are allowed to read and discus, Henryk and Frieda find they are sort of kindred spirits. Their ability to speak different languages means they are able to retain a little privacy when talking. Soon they are meeting up secretly and then not long after having an affair despite Henryk being married. When it becomes apparent that Henryk is in danger of being rounded up as a political prisoner and possibly sent to a camp Frieda begs him to leave Berlin with his wife Emilie, even providing jewellery to pay for their escape. Emilie works as a nurse and is considered “safe” or not a “problem person” by the Nazis whish is why they could both flee relatively easily. Emilie knows of Henryk and Frieda’s affair and gives Henryk an ultimatum but Henryk fails to make any choice in time as he and Frieda both end up as political prisoners in camps. Frieda is first sent to Ravensbruck, then Auschwitz, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is where she writes her secret letters to Henryk, not even knowing if he is alive. Henryk is sent straight to Auschwitz and made to give up any ideals or rebelliousness up when he is put to work in one of the crematoria.

This book has so much going on from the story of the letters, revealing what happened in Henryk and Frieda’s past. There is Miriam’s abusive relationship with Axel, where he has made her into someone who self- harms in an attempt to feel in control of something. Axel also interferes with the arrangement where Miriam is caring for her father in is home. He succeeds to the extent of having Henryk removed from Miriam’s care and being placed in a care home/hospice. Though things don’t totally go to Axel’s plan when Henryk is taken ill during the transportation of him to the hospice and has to be rushed to hospital.  Axel is a very violent, strange man who will stop at nothing to get Miriam to do as he bids her to. There is also the fact that the Police do not seem to believe Miriam’s version of events when Axel corners Miriam outside the hospital Henryk is in temporarily and assaults and rapes her. The Police insinuate that the rape is a misunderstanding, that perhaps Axel didn’t know her wishes, or in fact that as Axel has told them she likes spontaneity, and rough outdoor sex!

Eva is another great character in the book that I adored. Eva has her own secrets and past trauma’s to deal with. It is through a chance meeting at the library that sees Eva end up being an important and instrumental person in Miriam’s life. Eva translates the letters from Frieda to Henryk. Eva also talks with Miriam and encourages her to take action against Axel. It is only with the help of Eva that Miriam finds the internal strength to demand a divorce. Eva becomes a true friend to Miriam and even finds someone to help her prove that Miriam is not the mentally disturbed individual that Axel is portraying her as. Then when once again it looks like Axel is gaining the upper hand during an assault on Miriam, it is Eva that comes to her aide. Eva is also a great support to Miriam when she reads the final letter she has translated. Eva attempts to ease Miriam slowly into the frame of mind to accept what the letter seems to suggest.

My immediate thoughts upon finishing reading this book were that this was an amazing book full of emotion, heartbreak & more. I had so many questions throughout the book, some were answered and some were not, which made the book feel even more realistic as there would have been no records of those at Ravensbruck, Auschwitz & Auschwitz-Birkenau.
To sum up I adored reading this book. The Holocaust is something that provokes strong emotions in me and I feel I have to read these stories, that they deserve to be told, and read, and remembered. I read both fictional books, fictional books based on facts and factual biographic stories of this era. I am not Jewish in my close nor historical heritage that I know of, I just feel drawn to read about this time of history.
I loved the story of the letter being sewn in the dress and do wonder if this was based on any historical facts from the era. Though I have read about Dr Mengele’s experiments and such, I had never heard of the term, or those medically experimented on being called “Rabbit Girls”. I will admit that I had guessed, or rather felt an inkling of a possibility about the fantastic twist that occurs at the end of the book but what an amazing twist it was!! I went through a whole range of emotions reading this book, from anger, sorrow and an affinity with how Axel treats Miriam and the domestic violence and abuse she endures. I was incensed at the male Police Officers that dealt with Miriam being raped by Axel. I felt irritation and resentment at how the “system” treat Miriam as a non- person, and in their opinion, her being uncapable to care for her father Henryk. I totally agreed with Miriam and the fact she was against Henryk being institutionalised and the possibility it would remind him of his time in Auschwitz. I felt horror at how Frieda, the rabbit girls and other women of the camp were handled by the Nazi’s the indignities they were forced to undergo. The way pregnant women and babies were treated. Then there was the shock at what Henryk had to endure during his time at Auschwitz. The once principled, intelligent, well-read Professor reduced to working at the crematoria which is revealed at the latter end of the book along with his nightmare of seeing a familiar face amongst the bodies he was forced to throw in the furnace.

What more can I say, an amazing, emotive read and keep those tissues handy as I can’t believe anyone would not shed a tear or two whilst reading this book.


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