THE GERMAN GIRL
by Armando Lucas Correa
translated by Nick Caistor
Atria Books, 360 pages
reviewed by Kellie Carle
“Today I’m going to find out who I am.”
This declaration from Armando Lucas Correa’s debut novel The German Girl frames the journey of one of Correa’s characters, Anna Rosen. The journey leads her to her great-aunt, Hannah Rosenthal, Correa’s second narrator. Hannah’s story reveals the strength and perseverance necessary in order to survive as her family joins other Jewish refugees headed to Cuba on the SS St. Louis to escape Nazi-occupied Germany. Anna learns from Hannah’s stories, gaining a better understanding of her aunt’s seclusion in Cuba, and of her father who died before she was born. Broken into four parts, the novel explores how these two lives converge. Anna and Hannah, both, tell their own stories as they experiences loss and come face-to-face with obstacles that will force them to face their weaknesses and recognize their strengths.
The editor of the top-selling Hispanic magazine in the United States, People en Español, Correa is an award-winning journalist. He wrote The German Girl originally in Spanish under the title La Niña Alemana.
The German Girl permits readers to enter the minds of two twelve-year-old girls as their lives are shaped by the tragedies of the SS St. Louis and 9/11. Correa expertly combines fact with fiction, as he constructs and then deconstructs the lives of two young girls. He also illustrates the importance a family’s history and the need to pass down history through the generations. The story of the contemporary girl, Anna, is imbedded (as is her name) in Hannah’s and though this is the conceit of the novel, it is also a weakness.
Anna does not receive the same treatment and attention as Hannah and her arc depends on Hannah’s story coming to fruition. Until that occurs, Anna feels like a device invented to get to Hannah’s arguably more interesting life.
The novel immediately transports readers to 1939 Berlin, where Hannah decides that she will kill her parents in fear that they are trying to abandon her to the Nazis. History alerts readers of the impending events of the Holocaust but Correa focuses on the impact of fear and how Hannah, who is “almost twelve years old,” struggles to make sense of a world where a neighbor, once her playmate, now refers to her as “impure.”
Besides her mother, the only consistent figure in her life is her best friend, Leo. Correa alters the construction of his prose whenever Leo is present, deviating from concise and observant to elaborate and longwinded phrasing to match Hannah’s difficulty in keeping up with her best friend.
Leo was a passionate person. He didn’t walk, he ran, always in a hurry, with a goal to reach, something to show me that I shouldn’t miss. He also visited various neighborhoods, trying to figure out what was happening in this city of ours, which was falling apart bit by bit. Occasionally he mingled with the Ogres marching and shouting the streets with their flags, but I never dared to join him.
In this way, the author reminds the reader that this is a historical novel, not a textbook, based on true events. Leo’s passion is balanced with a sense of urgency, his need to constantly be on the move matched with the setting of dilapidated buildings and a fear of the other. I found myself re-reading these passages, ensuring that I did not miss anything in Leo’s energetic presence on the page, often times trying to catch my breath, much like Hannah, in my attempts to keep up with him as I too allowed him to show me things I should not miss.
Hannah and Leo refer to the Nazi party and its members as “Ogres,” as they convey a youthful understanding of the monsters who control the world around them. Cast out by her friends and neighbors who view her as disgusting, the term translates the fear that triggers Hannah’s decision on the first page. She would rather kill her parents than be abandoned and sacrificed to the Nazi monsters.
She does not kill her parents. Instead, after Hannah and her family are forced from their home after her father’s brief imprisonment, they set sail on the now infamous SS St. Louis with several other Jewish refugees in hopes of finding relief in Cuba before possibly settling in New York. Correa combines fact with fiction, weaving the tragic true story of the passengers aboard the SS St. Louis into his novel. On Saturday, May 13, 1939, several hundred Jews boarded the St. Louis, a German ship, as a last hope of escaping Nazi Germany. The original plan was to take these refugees to Cuba where they would wait until they were allowed to enter the United States. However, under pressure from the Nazis, Cuba’s director of immigration passed a decree that forbid any more refugees from entering the country. The passengers on the St. Louis became pawns of Nazi and Cuban scheming and eventually the ship was forced to leave Havana. In the days that followed, the ship sailed along the U.S. coast, but American officials denied it entry and the ship and its passengers were forced back to Germany, where most were sent to death.
Correa juxtaposes Hannah’s story with Anna’s. Anna’s father was killed during the events of 9/11 while her mother was still pregnant with her, leaving her with a desire to discover the type of man her father was, unaware of his past or what remains of his family.
Then a package arrives that jolts Anna’s story and gives life to this part of the novel. The sender is revealed to be the almost eighty-seven year old Hannah. From this point on the book gathers momentum as one learns how her father spent his childhood while the other confronts how her father met his demise. At this point in the novel, Correa ventures away from splitting his characters’ points of view equally and focuses on Hannah. Anna’s plot line becomes overshadowed by the intricate details Correa provides regarding what became of Hannah between the ages of twelve and eighty-seven.
Correa displays his extraordinary talent in depicting his young characters while embedding the truth of the St. Louis within this novel as a way for his audience to gain a better understanding of the forgotten passengers on the ship who sought relief from their tormentors but were turned away. Many survivors, however, are unable to speak and are haunted by the memories of those they watched sail away and never heard from again. In one of these instances, Anna and her mother meet a woman who traveled on the St. Louis along with Hannah. However, the elderly woman is unable to remember Hannah and is reluctant to relive her painful past. In response Anna redoubles her effort. “I don’t want to end up feeling the same guilt toward him,” she says, seeking her father’s story through her great-grandmother’s.
I’m only nearly twelve! At my age, you still want your parents around. Shouting at you, refusing to let you play when you want to, giving you orders and lectures when you don’t behave.
Hannah is able to have what Anna cannot during part two of the novel. While aboard the St. Louis her father and mother resume their roles as parents instead of outcasts trying to smuggle themselves out of Germany while she enjoys lavish parties, discovers she is going to be a big sister, is reunited with Leo, and is once again left to explore her surroundings free of the watchful eyes of the Ogres. Correa incorporates correspondence between passengers on the St. Louis with Cuban and, eventually, American officials who state that they can no longer accept the refugees. With an eye to the present refugee crisis, he reminds us of the story of the St. Louis.
As the ship makes its way to Cuba despite being told there is no room, the refugees become desperate, formulating ways to ensure that they will not have to return to their home countries and face the “Ogres” that have invaded their homes. Hannah is left to wonder what will become of her family should the Rosenthals be allowed to disembark once the ship reaches Cuba’s shores. And, if permitted to leave, she fears she will be separated from Leo, Correa growing their strong bond into that of a first love during their short period of calm.
However, when they reach Cuba, Hannah is not only separated from her beloved Leo but from her father as well. Even though readers are provided with a sense of hope, the promise that Anna will meet Hannah, this hope is brought into sharp contrast with the characters’ sense of loss. By part two of the novel, both have lost their fathers. Correa again illustrates his young characters’ understanding of the world around them. As Hannah and her mother are forced off the ship, she struggles to steal one last glance at her relatives as they drift farther away from her.
The Ogres had snatched my Papa from me. The Cuban Ogres. I couldn’t kiss him. I couldn’t say good-bye to him, or Leo, or the captain.
Hannah and Anna suffer from the loss of their fathers, a fact that strengthens their bond once they meet. After becoming separated from her father, Hannah and her mother decide to stop speaking German and accept that the Cuban people will only ever see them as “Pollacks.” However, after Anna’s arrival, Correa resumes the split point-of-view technique. Hannah sees a lot of her younger self in her great-niece, launching her into a past she would rather forget. Anna becomes fascinated by the secrets that haunt her great-aunt and the rumors that her Cuban neighbors whisper about her. While Anna delights in the fact that she is named after such a mysterious woman, Hannah forces herself to reflect on her, finding comfort in what she has gained such as Anna’s father, who left her with someone to carry on their family name outside of Cuba.
Kellie Carle earned her BA from Old Dominion University in Virginia, MA from West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and MFA from Spalding University’s Low-Residency program in Kentucky. When she is not exploring the realms of speculative, jazz, and historical fiction, Kellie avidly pursues misspelled words, botched plot lines, and rudimentary characters. Her work can be found in Pennyshorts, Sick Lit. Magazine, and Phindie. To learn more, please visit her website at kelliecarle.com.