Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum

Would you sell your soul to feed your child?

This novel asks that nagging question: "What would you have done?" Would you have helped the oppressed, would you have colluded with the enemy, would you have sold your soul to feed your child? Jenna Blum is good at asking questions. She spent four years as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation documenting the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

This novel asks that nagging question: "What would you have done?" Would you have helped the oppressed, would you have colluded with the enemy, would you have sold your soul to feed your child? Jenna Blum is good at asking questions. She spent four years as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation documenting the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

The story tacks effortlessly between 1940s Germany and 1990s America. Eighteen-year-old Anna is pregnant by her Jewish lover. When her father turns him in to the Nazis, Anna seeks refuge with a bossy woman baker. The two women make bread for the officers of the nearby Buchenwald camp. Secretly they bake for the prisoners too. Anna risks her life to feed the inmates, but effectively saves her life by agreeing to the endless, abusive sexual demands of a high-ranking Nazi officer. He keeps her and her new baby daughter alive, but shames and destroys her in the process.

It's a loveless novel, where almost all the sexual encounters are violent. "Anna imagines that, were she able to visit the caves in which people first dwelled, she would find scrawled drawings that have been omitted from museums and history books. There would be scenes of ritual aggression and submission, painted in blood, caked with dried seminal fluid... the rites between men and women; age-old and rotten to the core." Anna loses the power to show real love to anyone, but there's dignity in her decision to keep secret everything she has endured. Her daughter Trudy observes ruefully, but with a grudging respect, that her mother hasn't really spoken to her for 50 years.

I was captivated by the individuals in this novel, but irritated by its broader canvas. Jenna Blum is clearly repelled by intolerance and yet there are endless, oddly prejudiced and formulaic descriptions of Germans. Rainer "has to be the most German Jew in the entire world... you're so obsessively neat." Anna's daughter Trudy is "remote. Formal. Cold. Compulsive about cleaning. All those good German traits."

Jenna Blum, who's American with a German mother and Jewish father, admits to feeling prejudiced about Germanic traits because she lived in England for a while. On her official website she claims that "my time in England had infected me with an Anglophile's view of Germany, a hangover of snide resentment from World War Two that lingers to this day. In my mind, Germans were cold, stiff, goose-stepping figures who were interested only in playing soccer - with the doggedness and lack of humour they brought to every task - and starting wars." For a novel which is so sophisticated and elegantly plotted, this is puerile stuff. Cheap and repetitive definitions of Germans as neat and the English as rabidly anti-German are crass and clumsy.

Those Who Save Us is published at a time when anti-semitic attacks have risen to record levels in this country, when a member of the royal family thinks it appropriate to wear a swastika to a fancy dress party and when the London Mayor likens a Jewish reporter to a Nazi guard. In that context, it's a penetrating novel which touches the heart and questions the conscience.

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