Tag Archives: Holocaust fiction

Book Diva Review: Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast“, by Chris Bohjalian is based on a Prussian diary, and is an intense novel, filled with historical fact, within the pages of fiction. It is a poignant, harsh, realistic, descriptive, and an inspirational novel, depicting the last year of World War II, as seen from varying unique perspectives of those who are trying to flee the Germans, and also flee the Russians, and whose lives come to relate on some level. It isn’t your typical World War II novel, strictly filled with atrocities of the Holocaust, but a book that focuses on Jews, on German citizens and Prussian refugees, and how they try to survive before the Russians take over, and how the war affected them.

The characters appear as different as night and day, yet they have the same goal, to escape their current circumstances. We have a German Jew who managed to escape deportation to a concentration camp by throwing himself off of the train that was taking deportees there, and is now disguised as an SS officer; a Prussian aristocratic family who is holding a Scottish Prisoner of War (POW), and two women inside a concentration camp who are witnessing horrific atrocities. The various characters eventually blend together in their transitions and journeys to avoid the Russians and/or Germans, and no matter how minute, they do manage to relate to each other, as each one is a piece of the whole in the weaving of the tapestry.

Anna is one of the main characters, and she falls in love with the Scottish POW. We see how she begins to view things, slowly, in new perspectives, and her image of Hitler changes, and we see how Callum, the Scottish POW views the war from an allied view point, and from that of a POW. Anna’s mother admires Hitler immensely, meanwhile her father and two brothers, are ordered into the German Army. Bohjalian manages to bring insight to mother and daughter, as they begin to grasp the intensity and reality of what is happening, as they cross paths with labor camp victims, as their expectations and visions are diminished with realizations they don’t want to face. There is Uri the Jew, trying to survive within the confines of Nazi Germany, yet he manages to help, and save, some Germans along the way.

Lives intertwine, compassion illuminates within the diversity and confines of war, and some of the characters are left wondering how they believed what they did, how could they not see what was happening, why didn’t they see the realities? So many questions are asked, but there is no clear answer, and they feel the burden of guilt begin to weigh on them. What is right, what is wrong, the lines are blurred.

Denial played a big role during World War II, and many could not fathom and believe all that they were hearing, or they were in denial and didn’t want to comprehend that the Nazis could be committing all of the murders, atrocities and exterminations that the radio news and grapevine stories stated were occurring. Their Germany was civilized and filled with arts and culture, their Germany would never stoop to the tactics they were hearing about. Their Germany was about to fall, and they slowly began to understand the severity of the situation.

I don’t want to go into the depth of the story line , as I feel you need to read “Skeletons at the Feast” for yourself in order to understand the intensity of the situation thrust upon the characters. They were the defeated, the vanquished, striving for survival, unable to handle their circumstance in an organized manner, as they fled westward.

Bohjalian has a deep sense of time and place, and an strong insight into the historical events that took place during World War II. From the atrocities of the Holocaust, to the Russian occupation about to unfold, he brings us a story of people on the edge of life, people fleeing, fleeing in fear, frenzied, in denial, not able to grasp the complexities of their circumstances, people similar to those I read about in Irene Nemirovsky’s masterpiece of a novel, “Suite Francaise“, French people in a panic, not knowing who to trust, where to turn, where to run, how to act, how to flee. Bohjalian manages to encapsulate all of that and so much more into his masterful writing.

Bohjalian has brought us a novel on a grand historical scale, in “Skeletons at the Feast“. He is brilliant with his word visuals, and our senses are heightened throughout each page. The novel is riveting, intriguing, compelling, brutal and harsh, yet there are the moments of love, humanity and inspiration, and the moments of clarity, within the disbelief, for the characters. There were times when certain things were beyond their control, and when survival becomes a prime force in their actions. Some might differ with this opinion, and to be sure, I am certain there are those who will disagree. But, for me, the message was extremely clear, and the metaphor was strong and illuminating…how war affects everyone…no matter who they are…and how man’s humanity and kindness can survive under adverse conditions…through all the horrors set before him…and how humankind can react with acts of kindness purely for the sake of helping another, selflessly, no matter their race or religion, and no matter if they give their life up for another. Redemption and illumination, love and war, violence and compassion, time and place, are all a part of the epic tapestry. One must read each line carefully, and take in each word with thoughtfulness, pondering the circumstances in the lives before them on the pages, as the war affects everyone involved. Once a person has done that, they will then begin to understand the depths to which Chris Bohjalian has written a magnificent and historical novel, and an extremely incredible and overwhelming story in “Skeletons at the Feast“. His message is timeless, and could apply to certain circumstances occurring in the world, currently.

This is my second reading of this gripping novel. I read it two years ago, and have just now finished reading it, again, for a book club discussion.

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Book Diva Review: Far Above Rubies

Far Above Rubies, by Cynthia Polansky is a novel based on a Dutch Jewish woman who actually did exist during World War II. The fictionalized account demonstrates how one woman tried to save her six stepchildren from death at Auschwitz.

Sofie Rjinfeld, was a young woman confronted with circumstances beyond her control, and her choices, which were in her control, mystified me. There was no reason for her to be deported, she was not chosen to be, yet decided to go along with her six stepdaughters. Why?

Many consider her brave, and the story line more or less depicts her as such, but within the underlying portrayals, I felt a sense of something lacking. I began to wonder why a woman would voluntarily allow herself to be deported with her six stepdaughters, while her husband remained behind. Was it altruistic or was there another motive? Was she naive or was she ignorant, or both? Was it denial as to what was actually occurring or was it true selflessness?

In any event, I found this book to be lacking in extreme details, and felt the author skirting issues and circumstances that could have been told with more compelling inclusions. I never felt that Sofie Rjinfeld had much depth to her. She was young, and did not necessarily fit the mold of a woman of affection. She tried in her way to bring harmony into the home, but did not grasp the brevity of what she undertook.

I did not find the events to be vividly illuminating. Were their details? Yes, there were. Were they enlightening to me? No, they weren’t. It is as if the situations were skimmed over, a bit sweetened. I did not find intensity within the pages. Did Polansky do a decent job with word imagery? Yes, she did. Her images, although vivid, did not seem to acutely define the situations. She did do her research, I give her credit for that. But, along with the research, the events in the story line were not intense in portrayals.

Maybe I have read so many Holocaust historical novels by other writers that rings true to the accounts mentioned in them.

One thing I did like about the novel was Sofie’s will to survive, no matter what. I liked the fact that she did, in fact, act motherly and caring for her stepdaughters while in Auschwitz. There were times the humane side of her did shine through as she tried to help her stepchildren, along with the human side of her, as far as her protecting herself from being selected for death. Overall her intentions were good, yet the fact that those stepchildren died and she survived did not mesh with me.

What amazed me were the post war situations. I found it difficult to accept the circumstances of her life after the Holocaust. It mattered not to me that she felt a sense of comfort in her living conditions. For her to become involved in the experiences she did, seemed a bit far-fetched to me, and the author’s creative edge crossed borders, in my opinion.

What could have been a compelling read was lacking in depth and in writing style, as far as I am concerned. It could have been told more powerfully. I felt disappointed, expecting to find some inspiration, as I continued to read, but that was not the case. Some might feel otherwise, and that is fine, we each have our own ideas on book content and how it affects us.

Far Above Rubies, by Cynthia Polansky, although based on true events, was not presented in a way that captivated me.

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Bookdiva Review: City of Women

City of Women, by David R. Gillham,  is an incredible book, and a compelling look into the underlying forces that ordinary citizens, mainly women, in Berlin chose to implement during World War II.

During World War II, Berlin, normally a city with a large population, had mainly women within its city walls, due to the fact most of the men were off to war.  The women that remain, and what many of them eventually take on, turns the pages of this novel into an intense  story.

Sigrid is one of those women left in Berlin, and she not only masquerades her daily life and its journeys, but also has an affair with a Jewish man. Eventually, due to her decisions, she must reconcile her life as a wife with her life as a lover. She must combine and coordinate her daily life and its goings on that are expected of her, with her pursuit to help Jews.

While the Berlin residents do almost anything to avoid interacting with the Gestapo, Sigrid lives with her mother-in-law, and her husband is off to war. Her love of movies brings her a chance encounter with her soon to be Jewish lover. The movie theater also bring her to meet a woman who calls on her to help in the hiding of Jews in the underground movement.

City of Women is a page-turner, and once I began it, I read it straight through. It is a metaphor for the strength of women, and the heroics that some German women displayed during the extreme horrific and the tumultuous of times.

City of Women is a book of love and war, good and evil, of soul searching, of decisive actions, and of redemption.

I highly recommend City of Women, by David R. Gillham to everyone.

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Filed under Blogrolls, Fiction, Historical Novels, Literature/Fiction, World War II