Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"The German Girl" and Today's Headlines

When I first read "The German Girl" I thought it was a beautiful debut novel and especially topical as Cuba was appearing in the headlines upon the death of Fidel Castro and as our country began to rethink our relations with our island neighbor to the south. By telling this story from the viewpoint of two young people spanning a 70 year period of history, the author poignantly demonstrates that racial hatred, or the persecution of those not "like us" is not limited to a single time or place but, unfortunately seems to be a part of human nature.

I thought I knew the story of the St. Louis and the 937 passengers, most of whom were Jews, who seeking sanctuary from the Third Reich and the horror of the Holocaust, were turned away from our shores.

What I didn't know, and what, today, made me again think about Correa's moving novel, is that many of those who boarded the now infamous transatlantic liner, in 1939, had been promised safe passage from Hamburg to Cuba. They had saved, borrowed, and made tremendous sacrifices to obtain the necessary visas as well as incurring the not insubstantial cost of a transatlantic voyage. They had been granted refuge in Cuba and possessed legal documents assuring them of their admission. However, tragically, upon their arrival  the President of Cuba, Federico Laredo Bru, issued Decree 937 which rendered the refugees permits null and void forcing the St. Louis to drop anchor in the bay. After four days of negotiations 28 passengers were allowed to disembark and the rest were ordered to remain on board and seek other protection.

Captain Gustav Schroder did his best to find a non-German port but was turned away by the United States (even though many passengers held visas approving them for eventual entry to the US) before Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Holland agreed to grant some of the passengers political asylum. As the German army swept through Europe many of the refugees from the St. Louis were eventually exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps.  Only the 287 souls who were accepted by Great Britain were spared. In 2009, the United States government acknowledged their mistake and expressed deep regret for not aiding the St. Louis refugees.

The story told in "The German Girl" is of a voyage that began with a feeling of celebration and confidence that salvation was near at hand. Like refugees everywhere these innocent people, including many women, children and elderly individuals were looking forward to beginning a new life while nostalgic about leaving all they had ever known behind.

My heart was saddened this weekend as I heard of families separated, people stranded in strange airports mid-trip, returned upon arrival, detained for hours, unable to board airlines to begin a long anticipated new life, all of them left holding travel documents which took years to obtain that were issued by the United States, and suddenly declared worthless by that same government.

One can argue that President Trump is doing what the electorate wants and this is why he won the election.  I accept that, and am not surprised that our policy will be one that is more restrictive when granting asylum to refugees, this was a major part of his campaign and he won. What I find so troubling, and what brought to mind the novel "The German Girl" is that as a country we failed to honor commitments already made and by doing so turned the lives of many innocent people upside down, left them confused and afraid during an already traumatic and stressful time, and potentially placed their lives in jeopardy.

Fiction gives the reader an opportunity to see the world from another point of view. We are allowed to live the experiences of others put in situations we may ourselves never face. We read about Hannah, her mother Alma Strauss and father Max as they come to terms with the need to leave their beloved Germany and then apply and wait for the necessary documents to be granted, fearing all the time that it may be too late. We sense the relief and hope aboard the St. Louis as they cross the Atlantic followed by the fear, confusion, and sense of betrayal upon discovering the asylum they had been promised was merely an illusion.

I would recommend "The German Girl" to those who have described the chaos created last weekend as a minor inconvenience, similar to taking ones shoes off at the airport.


Unknown said...

Thanks! Beautiful review

Joni said...

Thank you for taking the time to read my post. "The German Girl" is a beautiful novel. It is always a surprise when an author responds to a reader and bookseller.