Warning: this review contains some spoilers.
Those Who Save Us is a novel that offers a different perspective of the war. It’s not a novel about the battlefield and the soldiers who fought and perished there, or the people who got sent to concentration camps to die. This novel focuses on the Germans who helped the Jews—or didn’t—and the price they had to pay for their actions. It’s not a novel of moral absolutes; it’s one filled with grays.
The story is told in two timelines by two women: Anna in the early 40s, a baker’s apprentice who has a relationship with a Jewish doctor that leaves her pregnant in the midst of an antisemitic world; and her daughter Trudy, a history professor in the 90s who grows up in Minnesota trying to understand who she is and how to muffle the shame of what her German ancestors did.
As Trudy embarks on a series of interviews to understand the German perspective during the war–a cleansing of sorts–her mother Anna locks herself in silence and baking. While Anna tries to leave the past behind, Trudy is determined to uncover it and understand it, creating increasing friction with her mother. But Anna’s past unfolds in front of our eyes with painful detail. In her youth, we see her as a woman whose initial naïveté and playfulness transforms into courage and bitterness. She often has to do things she doesn’t want to do, things that will haunt her for the rest of her life, but we also see her generous spirit and her tenacity as she puts herself in danger to help others. This mixture of guilt, impotence and the drive to survive makes her a fascinating character.
Blum does a good job at introducing the romance between Anna and the Jewish doctor, but I can’t say she’s equally convincing in a romance that flourishes later on. The novel seems to sag a little at times (particularly during the years where Anna has a relationship with an SS officer) and has a few scenes of what some may consider gratuitous sex. But overall, the story flows well, and Trudy’s interviews are dynamic and interesting.
With a literary style that is sometimes frustrating (Blum chooses to do without quotation marks during her dialogues) but most often satisfying for the richness in language and the vivid descriptions and imagery, Blum shows us a different, a very human face of the war. Sure, there is a fair share of one-dimensional villains and victims thrown in the mix, but there are many characters in-between. And those are the ones who kept me reading.
I recommend this novel to those who have sometimes been disappointed with books about the Holocaust because of how predictable and/or repetitive they seem, and want to explore a different perspective. But this novel is not for everyone. There are a few violent scenes toward women and children. The subject is one that elicits a lot of emotion, pain and anger, and as such, it can feel daunting and depressing to some readers. It is in no way a light read. However, sometimes these sad stories are the ones that touch audiences the most. The resolution—and the story as a whole—definitely does that.
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