There are no easy stories of The Holocaust. It is not a huge surprise that Those Who Save Us was a hard read for me. I read it as a book club selection and at one point, when one of the others in my group asked me how I was liking the book so far I said, “I keep waiting for something good to happen.”
Suffice it to say a lot of bad things happen. That’s the awful truth behind any book with Nazi Germany as a backdrop.
Author Jenna Blum kept it real, so of course it was sad, depressing even. And something good does eventually happen of course, as is the case with WWII stories: The war ends. But the story wasn’t about the war, really. It was a character study on the themes of desperation, hope, resilience, shame, regret and gratitude.
The story in a nutshell, which is told in alternating chapters between the past and present, is this: A young woman, Anna, falls in love with a Jewish doctor just prior to his incarceration at Buchenwald. Pregnant with the doctor’s child, she is taken in by a baker who is secretly providing bread to the concentration camp prisoners. When the baker is discovered and executed, Anna picks up where the baker left off. A Nazi officer learns of Anna’s complicity, however, and he strikes a cruel deal with Anna to allow her and her infant daughter to survive. Half of the story is told through the daughter’s eyes 50 years later.
You begin to see the pattern of who saves whom subtly. Actually, everything about the story’s more intimate details is subtle. Interesting, because war, especially a war like WWII, isn’t subtle. Blum doesn’t use quotation marks in any of her dialogue, a stuttering distinction that flies in the face of convention. But I love Blum’s reason for it. She explains in her Amazon blog:
“My policy is, there had better be a danged good reason behind everything you do as a writer, especially if it’s unusual. If you’re employing some unorthodox authorial conceit such as not using quotation marks, you risk popping your reader out of the story. So yes, there is a reason I eschewed the quotes: they looked too lively on the page for this book. Quotes are like little firecrackers, telling the reader: “Hey, reader, pay attention! You get to eavesdrop here!” But for THOSE WHO SAVE US, I wanted to create an austere, sepia-toned atmosphere for these characters who dwell so much in memory. The quotes disturbed that.”
It’s amazing how it worked. Subtly and yet with force.
The cover on the paperback edition fails to prepare the reader for what lies in the pages. But maybe there is nothing that can prepare someone for a fictional treatise on hard choices. Everyone of us has to imagine what we would do if placed in the same situation, knowing we must live with our choices if we end up surviving.
A great read, but brutally honest. Best to know that up front. It’s what makes the story shimmer.