Author: Ellie Midwood
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: 27th September 2016
BLURB from Goodreads
This story is dedicated to all the victims of sexual slavery in German concentration camps, who had to endure inhumane suffering under the Nazi regime.
For many years after the atrocities had been committed, both sides – the abusers and the abused – still vehemently denied certain aspects of the Holocaust, and even the victims refused to admit the ugly truth about their incarceration, some out of fear, some out of shame, until several women decided to break an unofficial oath of silence, and brought their stories to life. This book is based on one of those stories.
Emilia is a young Jewish woman, whose life slowly turns into a nightmare as she finds herself facing a dreadful choice: to secure her family’s very existence by offering herself to one of the men who had put her behind the walls with barbed wire, or perish together with the least fortunate ones. Only, the Krakow ghetto and her very first abuser pale in comparison to what is yet to come, as she’s being sent to a place that soon will turn into her own personal hell and that will scar her for life…
World War 2 and the Holocaust is a subject I feel strongly about, in that both children and adults should never forget. Though this book is fictional it is actually based on what really happened during the holocaust to the unfortunate people the Nazi's decided didn't fit in with their idea of a perfect race. As the blurb says this book is dedicated to the women that really had to go through the horrendous treatment from the Nazis.
The cover features a Nazi soldier and a stark wire fence topped with barbed wire in the background. In the forefront of the cover is a woman facing the wire fence but looking over shoulder, you can see tracks of blood on her back and shoulders. I don't know whether you would call it a sub title or a byline, but it states "The darkest days in history of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a woman". This really does sum up the point of view that the book is told from. I can't put my finger on the exact reason why but I felt kind of drawn to the book.
Within the first 5% of this book I felt drawn in and intrigued what the Brettenheimer family story would be. The main character is Emilia Brettenheimer,who at the beginning of the book is about 19 years old and is fairly proud to be a German. Her father, Oskar even believes that the new regime under Hitler may be good for the country, so doesn't move to England when the family has the chance. Basically he feels he is safe, he is a German, he cannot speak English so why would he want to move there. Sadly it soon becomes apparent that if you are a Jew, you are no longer welcome, nor allowed to be German. First the Brettenheimer family have their beautiful home taken from them. Soldiers turn up one day and tell the family to pack a bag as they are being resettled in Krakow. The soldiers inform the family they can only take thirty zloty in total as a family, and must not take valuables or jewellery with them. Still Oskar Brettenheimer as head of the family continues to look on the bright side thinking this resettlement is just a blip, just a temporary measure. That they will return to their home and pick up their lives where they had left it.
In Krakow the whole Brettenheimer family are placed in what became known as the "ghetto". Here life is much different, food is rationed and if you don't work you don't eat. Also if you cannot work you are shipped out to "the other place" or simply shot! Emilia's parents, Oskar and Hannah are lucky in that their sons, Alfred, Martin and Ariel have work, and Emilia is "useful" as she volunteers at the nearby hospital so they are allowed to stay in the ghetto for now. The problems begin when Ariel, or Ari as the family call him falls ill and its clear he needs medication. Life in the ghetto is rough, poor, and a place where a simple cold can turn into a life threatening illness.
The Nazis in charge of the ghetto is known to help the Jews with extra food or medication but his help comes at a price. He will trade the jewellery that the Jewish people brought with them hidden in their clothing, sometimes sewn inside for whatever it is they made need. Sadly these few hidden gems don't last forever and then Emilia has nothing to left to trade but herself. Which she ends up having to do, its that or her family will be sent elsewhere during one of the regular inspections. The Nazis Officer, SS Richter who is in charge of the ghetto does initially protect the Brettenheimer family, moving them from one block of housing that is to be emptied and the occupants taken away and transported to a camp. Emilia pays dearly for that privilege/small "kindness" with the only thing she can trade for her families safety, her body. Emilia is ashamed at having to do this, and others around her including members of her own family snub her or tell her she disgusts them.
Later in the book when Emilia finds herself without her family literally pushed into a barracks room full of strangers, another girl around her age extends a hand of friendship and invites Emilia to share her bunk. The barracks is overcrowded, dirty, and smells horrendous and the prisoners have to share one thin mattress between two. The young girl is a lively red head called Magda, who seems strangely cheery in comparison to all the other women in the barracks. Magda immediately takes Emilia under her wing, telling her she should be okay as she doesn't look traditionally Jewish which will make her stand out more. Magda explains that being good looking should help Emilia attract a good benefactor.
Magda also reveals to Emilia what happened to her on her first night and how to handle it, so that when the very same thing happens to Emilia that very night. Magda explains she has a guard by the name of Schneider who sneaks her extra food and "protects" her from the unwanted attention of the other guards and men in the camp. According to Magda its the only way to avoid the attention of groups of soldiers. As when one particular guard takes you as his that there is a kind of man-code that means the others leave you alone. With Emilia's good looks being a mixed blessing she soon attracts the eye of an Officer, which according to Magda is even better. Magda encourage Emilia to smile at the Officer and allow him to use her for sex in exchange for extra food, clothes but more importantly for his protection against the other men in the camp. Though being popular with the men or being under the protection of a Guard or Officer means being extremely unpopular with some of the other prisoners. In fact they bully and pick on you all the more. It is better and much safer to make sure you are never on your own with them, which is why Magda and Emilia try to stick together. Both young women, Emilia and Magda have aged beyond their years. They have had to adapt quickly in order to survive. So when a young sensitive, innocent looking new girl, Helene arrives at their
barracks n both Emilia and Magda can see their younger selves in the new girl, Helene. They decide to quietly
help the new girl so Idrit doesn't bully her for being associated with them on top of everything else that is
sure to happen to the girl who looks barely 16 yrs old.
The character I loved the most in this book is Emilia, she is willing to do anything at all in order to try and save her family from being taken to a concentration camp or being shot. Throughout the book Emilia is literally used and abused all the way through this book, either by then Nazi Guards, Officers or Commandants as well as by her fellow Jewish people and prisoners. You cannot help but feel for her and imagine how she must have felt emotionally and physically, as well as wondering what you would have done if you were put in the same position. I found the friendship that developed between Magda and Emilia amazing. You could say by Magda taking Emilia under her wing probably saved her life. Magda taught Emilia how to switch off, endure and even to smile whatever was being done to her. Of course I loved Magda from the point she enters the book and yep I did shed more than a few tearsat a certain point in the book for her character. (You'll know what I mean ad where I mean when you read it.) I also immediately took to the character of Klaus, the last race of people he expected help from actually offered the hand of at first friendship and
then is given a home that leads on to much better times for him than he himself have just endured. I am being totally honest from the point of Klaus entering the book I had a strange feeling of de-ja-vu as I thought I had read a similar ending in another book, or seen in a similar movie, but I couldn't remember the title. This is no way a criticism of the book it just made me puzzle and wonder where I felt I knew it from. Also within the blurb it states that this book is based on the real stories of the women that went through this abuse, maybe that what made it seem familiar to me.
Now this next thing I say may seem a little controversial but I felt myself liking the character of SS Officer Manfred who ended up protecting Emilia by claiming her as his own, which ended her being molested and raped by any other guards at the camp. He even talks about the war and the state of the front-line as well as having discussions about Hitler and his theories. Manfred at times seems to believe that there is a future for him and Emilia after the war. It seems Hitler has his troops believing his propaganda about re-educating the Jewish race.
I also liked the character of Friede, a political prisoner who served as house-keeper/maid at the home of one of the Commandant's, his family and his sadistic adjutant (second in command) whom featured earlier in the book too. Friede did her best to warn the new maid what she would suffer when the adjutant was left in charge in the Commandants absence.
The author also covers the fact that paperwork consisting of lists of people murdered by the Nazis were burned so as little evidence as possible was left behind for the liberators. Then we see how the Nazis react when they are the ones behind the fences topped with barbed wire, and how they are treat by their former prisoners. The book shows that some of the liberated Jews and other prisoners actually go as far as saying that they forgive the Nazis. I'll be totally honest here, I truthfully do not think that I could have been as forgiving.
There is one particular character that carries out an act of compassion for a dying Nazis soldier that had singled her out in the concentration camp to be raped multiple times by himself and other guards. At first her reaction when asked to help this guard was a type of revulsion and a "you reap what you sow" attitude but after talking to other survivors she returns to help her former rapist and actually forgives him telling him to "go in peace". This reminded me of another book I read that was written by a Jewish survivor Eva Korr, who also says she forgives.
This book always has something going on all the time, just when you think life can't get much worse for Emilia it does. For every bit of light Emilia gets into her life she has to pay for it with sex, slavery and in beatings. All through this Emilia also has to live without the knowledge of how or at times even where her family is. This book shows the harsh realities of a war that for the most part is glossed over in schools and colleges around the world. I will be taking a look at the other titles written by this author.
My first reaction/thoughts upon finishing this book were that this was a heartbreaking story of Emilia's journey from a cosy life with her parents and three brothers, through the ghetto, two concentration camps, to a life in seclusion tormented not only through her memories of the horrific things that happened to her whilst in the ghetto & camps at the hands of the SS but also by fellow survivors after the liberation.
The female characters in this book represent real women and what they went through at the hands of the Nazis, ranging from lowly Guards to the top Commandants. These women deserve to have their stories told and for them to be read and remembered. These women were presented with some extremely difficult decisions to make that quite literally were life or death choices. When they were raped multiple times, or had to resort to having sex in exchange for food to save them from starvation, or clothes to keep them warm in the cold harsh conditions at the camp then went on surviving instead of committing suicide, their fellow prisoners would also bully them physically, verbally and mentally too. Some of the other prisoners and later survivors labelled these women as collaborators. Sadly this meant even when the abused women were then liberated from the concentration camps they still had to put up with constant reminders of what they had been through. Ellie Midwood, the author, really explains what the real people went through without making it seem glamourised in anyway for the book. Ellie is so descriptive that you feel you are standing alongside those women standing in the mud, in the freezing weather conditions during roll call, trying not to look at the latest unfortunate inmate that is being beaten with batons, or whatever other sick punishment the guards, both male and female have thought up for them.