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Most families have one significant story that would hearten many if it were known. Happily for us, the American author Olivia Hawker picked up one around her husband’s dining room table and enfleshed Anton Starzmann within the pages of her historical novel, The Ragged Edge of Night (2018). A humble man, Anton lays bare his conflicted soul, enters fully into the challenges that beset him, laughs and cries from the core of his being: overtures that endear him to the reader.

And yes, this is another story oozing from the wound of World War II, from 1942 to 1945, set in a backwater hamlet, 40 kilometers from bomb-strafed Stuttgart, Germany. From the opening paragraphs, tensions chilled this reader: Anton’s selflessness as former Franciscan friar, husband to Elisabeth, stepfather to her children, and the scrutiny of Herr Franke, the hamlet’s collaborator; the innocence of developmentally challenged children and their killers; the “normalcy” of the hamlet’s lifestyle within bombing range of nearby Stuttgart; Anton and the pastor’s covert resistance with the Red Orchestra that plots the death of Hitler.

Within these tensions, Anton and Elisabeth skirt the edges of their marital and parental responsibilities within their deepening relationship.

Offsetting these tensions, however, are the bronze bells ringing from the belfry of St. Kolumban’s Church—hope infusing the evil that gags them.

Two salient points emerge from this reading: the farmers’ frequent laments of not having resisted Hitler’s menace, rendering them passive and horrified. And through bartering homegrown produce and livestock at their weekly market, no one starved.

Should hard times befall us, I shudder.

 

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Tikkun olam, a centuries-old Hebrew mandate to repair the world through practices of truth and loving kindness, breathes on every page of David R. Gillham’s historical novel, Annelies (January 2019). Such motivates Anne Frank, also called Annelies, and her family living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and its aftermath. Their moral rectitude is rife with lessons for us.

For six years Gillham researched three versions of Anne’s diary, numerous biographies of her, transcripts of those who knew the Franks, and Holocaust histories. Twice, he visited Amsterdam and walked in her footsteps, even to Westerbork, their first internment camp in the north. Thus equipped, he plunges us into the crassness, the betrayals, the smells, the heartbreak, and the staggering hardships blistering the Netherlands. The chapters burn with unrelenting tension.

Instead of Anne perishing in Bergen Belsen, however, Gillham has her return to family friends on Jekerstraat 65 where she meets her father Pim who also survived the camps. What follow is an admixture of historical fact and the author’s imaginative rendering of this spirited young woman; her adolescence torn asunder, she rages against Pim and his decision to move on with his life, rather deal with the brutality both had experienced. Her fury even entrains the emaciated ghost of her sister Margot who spars with her as she did when living. Only Anne’s diary and notes from her twenty-five months spent in the Annex finally restore her identity as a writer, her way of practicing Tikkun olam into adulthood.

Through Annelies, Gillham also honors the young who perished in the camps, thereby impoverishing generations of their talents.

There’s much to learn here.

 

 

Wrapping story around horrific events disseminates their skeletal outlines into bite-sized pieces for readers’ assimilation and learning.

 

Such an event occurred the night of January 30, 1945, during a freezing snowstorm upon the Baltic Sea. The Soviet submarine S-13 torpedoed the German transport ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, nine hours into its passage. On board were 10,000 refugees fleeing from the Russian and Allied offensive. Only one thousand survived.

For three years the author Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee from World War II, researched this disaster until, in her imagination, Salt to the Sea (2016) was conceived. The story unfolds, piecemeal, through four characters: Joanna, a twenty-one-year old Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a seventeen-year old East Prussian preservationist and restorer of works of art; Emilia fifteen-years old, Polish and eight months pregnant; and Alfred, a seventeen-year old delusional German seaman assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Like a skilled minimalist painter, Sepetys reveals more by what she leaves out. Her precise words have dropped depth charges upon this reader’s psyche, its rumble evoking a slow burn and profound feelings for the characters.

Salt to the Sea, an historical novel, also leaves me with questions. In seventy years, will anyone be writing of today’s refugees caught within the crosshairs of greedy global politics? Since when has it been all right to minimize the losses of the poor, even their lives?

All of this cries out to God.

 

 

 

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