Holocaust novels, though ‘notoriously tricky’ to write (as author Jake Wallis Simons notes), are not a new phenomenon. Nor are novels about coming of age, or even novels about cultural adaptation; but again, ones that do the genre justice are ‘notoriously tricky’ to get right. To write a compelling novel about all three requires the right balance of control over narrative sentimentality and emotionally believable characters. Thankfully, in Simons, we find a writer who is both respectful and affecting, and in The English German Girl, a story that is both accurate and profoundly moving. Central to the book is the theme of journey and growth, represented by the Kindertransport train that takes its main character out of Germany.
This meticulously researched novel – Simons’s bibliography is impressively extensive – follows young Rosa Klein, the eldest daughter of a once-prosperous German Jewish family whose lives are being picked apart by the anti-Semitic laws of 1930s Berlin. Rosa’s father, Dr Otto Klein, is a secular Jew who staunchly resists being chased out of his homeland by ‘popular hysteria’ and ‘dirty-mouthed’ Nazis until the shocking events of Kristallnacht force his hand. Rosa is sent ahead to England to stay with Dr Klein’s rather Orthodox cousins, Gerald and Mimi Kremer and their son Samuel, in order to secure jobs and visas for her parents, her older brother and little sister. Unfortunately, as soon as Rosa sees a glimmer of success, Great Britain declares war on Germany, the borders are closed, and the Kleins are trapped.
The novel remains in England with Rosa, documenting everything from the predictable – Rosa and Samuel fall in love, something the Kremers had done everything to prevent – to the truly startling, including an act of violence in the Kremer household that transforms Rosa’s life. Simons’s exceptional control of the voices of the characters gives Rosa, Samuel, the Kremers and the Kleins depth and veracity; Rosa’s progression from pidgin to fluent English is marvellously captured, and the sharp change between the diction of the Kleins and that of the Kremers emphasizes the culture shock she must feel. Though the prose itself is flowing and highly atmospheric, Simons maintains the right level of restraint in the right places; Rosa’s post-war discovery of the fates of various family members is handled with a stunning simplicity that is far more moving than any piece of purple prose.
Various issues are touched upon in The English German Girl, among them the radicalisation of oppressed people, the ease with which prejudice takes hold in the frightened or uneasy, the fetters and virtues of religion, and life on the Home Front of a war, but ultimately this story is about one woman and her emotional and historical place in Germany’s persecution of its Jews and England’s Second World War, and is worth reading just for the strength and truth of Rosa Klein.