Interview with Jenna Blum, Author of Those Who Save Us

those-who-save-usFollowing our read-a-long of Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us last month, we contacted the author to ask her some questions about the book.

If you missed the read-a-long, feel free to see our discussions here, here, here, and here.  We’d love to have you chime in if you’ve read the book.

Please give Jenna a warm welcome.

What inspired you to write Those Who Save Us? How did your work for the Shoah Foundation come into play? During your research for Those Who Save Us, what prompted you to select Weimer as the setting, and did you visit the area before you began writing?

In 1993 when I was fresh out of college, my mother announced we were going to Germany. I was underwhelmed at the prospect. “Why Germany?” I protested. There were so many more pleasant places in the world to visit—Spain, Italy, France, Canada, Arkansas…any destination whose people had not helped murder six million Jews, some of them on my father’s side of the family.

But my mother wanted to investigate her own heritage. She’s a concert pianist, and for years she’d been reading about the Nazi era, trying to understand how a country that had produced so many great composers and musicians had also engineered history’s most atrociously efficient mass genocide.

So I soon found myself hurtling through the German countryside in a rented car with my mother. We didn’t speak the language. We had no plan. We visited where her people came from—Wallhausen, a little farm town. We drank a lot of schnapps. And we asked each other over and over, “How could the Holocaust have happened here?”

One day we were driving from Buchenwald to Weimar. Buchenwald was the first concentration camp we visited, and we’d been stricken into uncharacteristic silence. As we descended the Ettersberg mountain into meadows full of purple flowers, I reflected that from the camp, you could see Weimar. So, I reasoned, from Weimar, the Germans must have been able to see the camp. What did they tell each other and themselves about what was going on up there? What did they say to their children when ash was falling from the sky in May? I wouldn’t have had a chance to make those choices; I would have been classified a Mischling, a half-breed, and, if discovered by the Nazis, sent with my Jewish father to the camps. But my mother was full-blooded “Aryan.”

I asked her, “If you’d been living in Germany during the war, what would you have done?”

She was silent for a moment, smoking, contemplating. Then she said, “I don’t know what I would have done. I’d like to think I would have been brave enough to help my Jewish friends, my neighbors. But if the Nazis caught you, the punishment was death. And if I had you kids to care for…Well, I can only hope I would have been brave enough.”

That was when the character of Anna came to me, on that road from Buchenwald to Weimar: a young, quiet, beautiful German woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. An ordinary woman forced by a crucible of circumstance to make extraordinary, terrible decisions. Anna dwelled in my head for the next ten years, softly but insistently demanding that her story, that of the average German woman, be told.

***
When I got home, I began to research. For the next decade, I read everything I could get my hands on about the Third Reich, its causes, victims, and citizens. I read dozens of survivor accounts. I engaged in what one reader kindly called “method research,” although you could also refer to it as insanity: watched German films and documentaries; listened to German music; took German classes (at which I was a total failure). I baked everything appears in the novel, because I wanted to know Anna from the inside out. (That Christmas Stollen took me 48 sleepless hours to make, and I swore like a trucker the whole time, but it lasted several months afterwards, like a Teutonic fruitcake.) And for a short period of craziness, while I was writing Anna, I dressed like her: in a dirndl skirt, my hair in braids. I did this only when writing, at night, not outside the house. Much. Only on Halloween.

The most important research I did, however, was to interview Jewish survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. I was living in Minneapolis then, in the mid-1990s, and my mom, who lived across town, pointed out an announcement in the Star-Tribune that the Foundation was seeking interviewers. I protested I couldn’t possibly apply for the position; I didn’t have survivors in my family; I didn’t have the right. My mom said, “Go.” I went.

I auditioned in Chicago with maybe a thousand other people for an interviewer’s position, and the Foundation did grant me that honor. For the next four years, I interviewed dozens of survivors in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. I specialized in couples: survivor pairs who had met each other after the war, in Displaced Persons camps overseas or here in America or, in a few instances, during the war itself.

Readers often ask what survivor testimonies I used in the writing of Those Who Save Us. My answer: nothing. Survivors’ memories are earned at a cost the rest of us can only imagine. They are hallowed ground. But the survivors I was privileged to interview did inform the novel’s emotional atmosphere, allowing me to create the emotional spectrum along which my characters dwell: from guilt to shame to denial to anger to a fierce, abiding hope. Most survivors, when asked for their testimonies’ final statements, said, “The world should know what we went through so it will never happen again.” I wanted, in writing Those Who Save Us, to respect their wishes by refracting some of their anguish and horror through a fictional lens. That is another reason I wrote the novel: to pay survivors an homage.

Was it important to the story that Trudy be a professor and working in German studies? How so? What other profession could she have had?

That’s a great question! In early drafts, Trudy was not a German history professor; she was a helpmeet to her husband Roger (who then shrank to a cameo in the book’s current, published incarnation) in his restaurant. I revised Trudy to become a lonely German history professor because I wanted to show she is irrevocably marked by her history: fascinated in an intellectual way by the very emotional parts of her past her mother can never share with her. Mastering historical knowledge is one way Trudy can put her arms around the past. It’s a much more active and character-specific role for her than peeling potatoes at Roger’s Le P’tit Lapin was.

Was Those Who Save Us the original title? How did you come to that title?

The title comes from the pivotal scene on Christmas morning in New Heidelburg when Jack asks whether Anna loved the Obersturmfuhrer, and Anna, trying to answer, wants to say “We come to love those who save us” but can’t speak—because she’s not sure whether she wants the word save or shame. To me, Anna is the ultimate symbol of Stockholm Syndrome, a woman who comes to depend on her captor to the point of loving him. The book’s title speaks to her relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer, which warps her psyche and, to a great extent, her daughter’s.

I also like the title because thematically, the novel is like a big chain letter of saving and being saved: everyone saves everyone else, literally and metaphorically. Max saves Anna, Anna saves Max, Mathilde saves Anna, the Obersturmfuhrer saves Anna, Anna saves Trudy, Jack saves them both, Rainer and Trudy save each other…. But the chain letter also winds heavy links around the characters’ ankles. Being a savior and being saved often comes with very unpleasant burdens, such as survivor’s guilt. I wanted the novel to explore and illustrate that high emotional cost.

We saw on Facebook that you recently traveled to Germany and visited places that were in the book. Could you tell us a little about the experience? Are there any photos that you’d like to share with our readers?

I went to Germany with a company called Adventures by the Book, which takes readers into the settings of their favorite novels. Ingenious, no? We traveled around Germany visiting the settings from Those Who Save Us, from Weimar to Berchtesgaden, and a few more cities that helped contextually fill in knowledge about the rise and history of Nazi Germany, such as Nuremberg. It was incredibly moving for me to return to some of the places I had visited with my mom while envisioning and researching the novel, and two of the most spectacular experiences from the writer point-of-view were: 1. finding the very spot on the banks of the River Ilm that Anna, the Obersturmfuhrer, and Trudie picnic on in Weimar on Anna’s 23rd birthday; 2. hosting a book club in the restaurant of the very hotel in Berchtesgaden where Anna and the Obersturmfuhrer stay in 1943–so answering questions and sharing experiences inspired by the book within the actual setting of the book. That was beyond cool. I encourage readers to enjoy photos of my Adventures by the Book experience on my Facebook page (scroll down to May 2017 and you will find them). Also, check out Adventures by the Book for literary adventures of a lifetime with your favorite writers!

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. What starts you on that journey and about how long does it take you to finish a first draft?

I often spend years researching, ideating, and outlining a first draft before I start writing it. A book starts as a short story for me: one out of several short stories I test-drive will have the “it” factor, beckoning me to expand it into a longer form. The characters are persistent and real and drag me around by the hair. Every short story, to me, is an exploration of an emotional question–for instance, Those Who Save Us began as a short story of the same name that explored what happens when you respond physically, have great chemistry, with somebody whose character you abhor–somebody who does monstrous things on a daily basis. The short stories often become pieces, chapters, in the larger mosaic of the book. I then back up and create an outline around the short story, a laundry list of scenes that will provide the scaffolding structure for the overall book. Many of these scenes begin as question marks, but as I write and revise the novel, I revise the outlines to fill them in! (So writers: if you think an outline is constraining, it’s not. It’s a tool that will help ensure your book has structure and is therefore not boring–but you can always revise it; in fact, you will. It’s fluid.) I have to research my novels, which are either historical fiction or focused contextually on topics that require specific knowledge, and that can take me up to a year. Then I start writing. I actually write fairly quickly; I can finish a draft in 3 – 6 months. The revising takes at least another year and, if done properly, should take more, up to two.

It’s not an instant gratification profession, but it is magic when it works.

Are you able to share any information about your upcoming book?

​I will be sharing more information about The Lost Family on my social media pages as the prepublication process continues, but for now: the novel follows concentration camp survivor Peter Rashkin (whom some readers will recognize from my novella “The Lucky One” in Grand Central) ​as he attempts to build a new life for himself in America, becoming a successful restaurateur in 1965 New York, taking an American wife, and having a daughter–and the effects on both Peter and his new family as they struggle with the memories of the family he lost and can never leave behind.

Thanks for asking–and I hope you stay tuned on Facebook, Twitter, and my website as more is revealed!

Thanks, Jenna, for sharing with us your thoughts on writing Those Who Save Us, your writing process, and your forthcoming novel. We cannot wait to read it.

Final Discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

those-who-save-usWelcome to the final discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. We’ve had a tough time keeping on schedule for this one.  For this discussion, we’ll be focused on Chapters 46-the end. Please chime in below in the comments.

Were you surprised that Trudy and Rainer’s relationship moved beyond friendship?

SERENA: That was a surprise. I mean I saw the connection between them with the teaching and the history and her apologizing, but I had no idea it would go that far. It almost seemed like Trudy was looking for comfort and understanding from someone and since her mother didn’t give her those things, she turned to him. I didn’t think it would last long, though.

ANNA: It seems that they both needed comfort and understanding. I didn’t think it would last long, either, though I didn’t expect him to flee like that. I was heartbroken when Rainer said, “I am not meant to be this happy.” And following the story of his brother, that really drove home the point of how the past can sort of paralyze people. It was more poignant for me than with Trudy because Rainer describes how he consciously made the decision not to act, though one can hardly blame someone in that situation and especially not a child, whereas Trudy was too young to really remember what happened during the war, other than those small flashbacks of the bakery.

Ranier and Anna both carry guilt with them from WWII.  What are your thoughts on their efforts to deal with it? And do you think one is better off because of how they have chosen to cope?

ANNA:  Neither of them seem to have coped well. They seem to be getting by, but the guilt prevents them from truly moving on, as neither will allow themselves to be happy. Rainer may be able to talk about his trauma, but he runs away as soon as he feels the slightest bit of happiness with Trudy. And Anna has closed herself off from everyone, especially after not being able to explain her feelings about the Obersturmfuhrer to Jack.

SERENA: I agree, it seems like neither has been able to move forward.  I’m a little more hopeful where Rainer is concerned, since he at least is going to see his daughter.  I think Trudy definitely helped him.  She got him to talk about the past with someone, and that enabled him to seek comfort in her, someone who understands.  He does leave Trudy, but I think that’s for the best as she seems to need more time to get past all that she has learned by the end of the book.  Anna is still not talking, and I think that’s going to be bad for her in the long run.

What do you think Anna’s inability to put her feelings about the Obersturmfuhrer into words meant? Do you think she did love him in a way because he saved them? Do you think Jack did more to save them?

SERENA:  Anna’s inability to put her feelings for the Nazi into words is sad but definitely due to the trauma.  She was forced to be with him. While he helped them survive and live better than others, I’m not sure she loves him so much as she is grateful to him.  It’s also hard for her to reconcile what she knows of his behavior toward the prisoners and others and how he treated her — though there were definite times of nastiness between them.  Did Jack do more to save them?  Hmm, not sure.  I think he saved them from a life of being run out of town as conspirators and maybe possible action by the authorities that took over after the war, but it’s unclear whether that would have happened.

ANNA: I agree. Her response to Jack really did seem to be a response to the trauma, especially since she both “save” and “shame” are both on the tip of her tongue at the time. And the fact that it was related to trauma was all the more evident when the scenes she imagines of the Obersturmfuhrer when she and Jack are being intimate are the more violent episodes she experienced with him, not the few times it seemed the Obersturmfuhrer was playing house with her and Trudy.

I felt bad for Anna in that moment. It seemed Jack had legitimate feelings for Anna, but it also seems as though a lot got lost in the translation, that he either missed or ignored what Anna had experienced during the war and continued to struggle with. When Anna couldn’t give him the answer he needed to hear, he put the nail in the coffin of their marriage and shut Anna off forever. I wonder if he had been more understanding toward her in that moment (which of course would have been difficult for him, but we don’t know much of what he experienced), would Anna have been more open and had an opportunity to heal?

I do think it’s possible that Jack did more to save them. Even with the Obersturmfuhrer’s gifts of food, Anna and Trudy were still starving and barely surviving. He did save her in that he allowed them to live, but Anna would not have had much of a live in Weimar after the war, especially given the animosity of her neighbors.

Do you think Anna’s inability to talk about her resistance activities, her heroism, is a “punishment that fits the crime”?

SERENA: I’m not sure it’s even punishment or that she even sees it as such. Maybe others would view it that way.  I think her silence is just a way for her to leave it all in the past.  She doesn’t want to think about the resistance activities because that will only lead to thinking about the Obersturmfuhrer and all that occurred because of him and with him.  I think her punishment may be her broken relationship with her daughter.  By not talking about it, she’s created a prison through which her daughter cannot even reach her.  She’s alone even when she is with her daughter.  She’s willing to sacrifice her own happiness for that of her daughter, hoping that her own silence will enable Trudy to be free of the guilt and shame.

ANNA:  I agree, I think the punishment was her inability to experience happiness in her marriage and in her relationship with Trudy, and that staying silent is a means of leaving it behind. Maybe she thinks what she did in the resistance was so little in comparison to her shame? It’s hard to speculate since we see little of Anna in the last chapters of the book.

Mr. Pfeffer’s testimony helps Trudy in many ways, but how do you think it will affect Anna? Is there a brighter future for her?

ANNA:  I hope that Mr. Pfeffer can lead Anna toward healing, and I think there’s hope for anyone, so why not Anna? Of course, there is more pain she will have to face, namely the Obersturmfuhrer’s role in Max’s death. But maybe she will see how Mr. Pfeffer perceived her and understood her sacrifice and she can begin to forgive herself.

SERENA:  I’m hopeful about Anna’s healing if Mr. Pfeffer can reach her.  I think his perspective from that time would help her see how helpful her resistance efforts were.  I do agree that the death of Max and how he died will be tough for her, but it would likely provide her closure and might even help her reconcile her confused feelings for the Obersturmfuhrer.

What did you think about the end of the book?

SERENA:  The end of the book seems to leave so much open-ended. I’d like to think that it is open that way because there is hope for everyone in the future. That the opportunities for happiness are still there and that they are empowered now to reach out for them.

ANNA: I did like how the ending left the possibility of hope in place for both Anna and Trudy. However, I think Trudy’s meeting Mr. Pfeffer was a little too convenient in that Trudy was given the answers she needed without Anna having to tell her. I would’ve been more accepting of that had there been some kind of resolution between Trudy and Anna, even if Anna was still silent and Trudy talked to her about what she’d learned. I think that bit of interaction between mother and daughter at the end was missing, since their relationship was central to the entire story. But overall, I thought the novel was very well done given the enormous ground it covered.

SERENA: I do agree that some kind of interaction between mother and daughter would have been preferable, but I think it still enables Anna to keep her silence until she’s ready to move forward.

ANNA: That’s a good point. It’s just a tough topic to write about, and even if I wanted more closure, the ending was true to the characters.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your thoughts on the final section of the book.  Please chime in below and stay tuned for our next read-a-long in September.

Week 3: Discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Welcome to the discussion of week 3’s reading in Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. Sorry for the delay in posting our thoughts. It’s one of those cases of real life simply getting in the way. For this discussion, we’ll be focused on Chapters 30-45. Please chime in below in the comments.

What do you think of Anna’s reactions to the black car and the trip?

ANNA: I’m sure the opulence of the vehicle amidst the squalor of war drew more attention to the bakery, and their arrangement, than Anna wanted. I think being so isolated and not allowed to leave the bakery allowed her to pretend that none of her neighbors were aware. It was interesting that this bit of freedom takes her back to her childhood, and then the reality sets in and gives her an uneasy feeling.

Once they arrived at the inn, I wonder if Anna thought about how easy it could have been to be the young girl acting recklessly with the young officer. And it is telling when the Obersturmfuhrer scolds them as though he is an exemplary, moral figure when in fact he is lying about Anna being his wife.

SERENA: I think Anna’s trip down memory lane is the first time she’s not thought about starvation, scraping enough together to feed her child, or how she has to sacrifice herself to feed her child.  I liked to see her thinking of her past with at least a little bit of fondness, even if she couldn’t exactly remember if her mother and her had been on such a trip.  The luxury of the car must have been a welcome change, and although I don’t think she was thrilled about this trip and how it would look to others in town, I think she enjoyed it to an extent.

I also found it funny that the Obsersturmfuhrer was acting so moral when he’s having an affair with Anna.  He’s a bunch of contradictions.

Do you think Anna is developing feelings for the Obsersturmfuhrer, given that she surprises herself by wanting to know whether he has a wife? Or do you think her curiosity is something else entirely?

SERENA: I think she’s merely curious about the man who basically holds her in his power.  She spends a great deal of time observing him and trying to figure out his moods and motivations, and I think that her asking is just part of that process.  She’s trying to figure out where she fits into the equation.  What level of importance does she have and maybe how far she can push him to get what she needs for her daughter.  I also don’t know that she was really surprised by his answer.

ANNA: I thought that, too. Though I’m still wondering why she bothered to keep the picture that has Trudy so obsessed with the past.

Do you think that Frau Buchholtz’s reaction and behavior toward Anna when she picks up Trudie would mirror what the others in the town think of her?  And do you think the trip in the car exacerbated those reactions since Anna was likely seen with the Obsersturmfuhrer?

ANNA: Anna senses more fear from Frau Buchholtz than anything, but I wonder if some of her other neighbors would be less fearful and more disgusted by her actions, especially those who didn’t believe Mathilde’s story about her pregnancy. I’m not surprised by Frau Buchholtz’s reaction, as she seems to be barely keeping her family fed and doesn’t need Anna to find something amiss and ruin that. I do believe that the presence of the Obersturmfuhrer’s car would generate fear, even if they learn that he’s only there to see Anna.

I think it was an important scene, Anna realizing that she and Trudy are much better off in terms of basic necessities. Maybe it helps her justify the arrangement with the Obersturmfuhrer in her mind, that it was truly a means of survival.

SERENA: I agree, I think this scene with Frau Buchholtz serves to demonstrate just how well off she is, even if she has to do unpleasant things to remain so.  Does it make it worth it to her, I’m not sure, but it certainly helps her find peace with what has happened.  Things could always be worse.

I’ve been wondering about that little family portrait myself, and I hope we get to hear why she did keep it all these years.  I think if she hadn’t kept it, she might not have the issues she does with Trudy now.

Why do you think Anna is drawn to the interview materials for Trudy’s project and why does she watch the videos?

SERENA: I think she wants to see what others experienced during the war, especially since she was so isolated in the bakery.  I think she also wants to know what others have told her daughter and whether anyone knows them or their situation.  It seems like she wants to keep the past in the past and doesn’t want it to resurface at all, though the likelihood of it doing so is remote unless she tells the story.

ANNA: I agree, Anna is curious but definitely wants to keep her own story untold for various reasons we can only speculate about at this point. I’m curious to see how Anna’s wartime story plays out in order to finally shed some light on why she refuses to tell Trudy her story, even when Trudy catches her watching the videos and it is understandable why she would press the point with her mother at that point. I hope this is a foreshadowing that they eventually will have their much-needed heart-to-heart.

What do you think about the interview with Mr. Goldmann? Do you think he is right that Trudy is looking for a way to exonerate the Germans, namely her mother, given what little she knows and speculates about Anna’s past?

SERENA:  I don’t think Trudy is looking to exonerate anyone.  I think she merely wants to understand what happened to her (stuff she doesn’t really remember) and her mother during the war.  She cannot get it from the source, so this is a roundabout way of her seeing the war through German eyes.  She still doesn’t know her own heritage from Max, so she’s assuming that she’s only German and wants to know what happened to these people that made them overlook so many atrocities.

ANNA: I agree that it don’t think she necessarily wants to exonerate anyone. Of course, I think she’s hoping to find that her mother had no choice to do the things she did during the war, and I wonder if the possibility that Anna may have had ulterior motives (like some of the other interviewees interested only in money) is part of the reason why these interviews hit her so hard. And hearing the story from Mr. Goldmann’s point of view and his justifiable anger is hard to come to terms with, especially for Trudy, who is German and thinks her father was a Nazi officer. It’s hard to wrap your head around as a reader, never mind as someone who actually had to deal with it.

It seems when Anna and Trudy go on that picnic with the Obersturmfuhrer that Anna sees the more “Nazi” side of him for the first time.  He fires his pistol without a second thought for Trudy. What did you think of her reaction and then her subsequent request that he release the 23 prisoners at the camp?

SERENA: I think this scene in which he fires the pistol and could have shot her daughter without a second thought is very telling.  She hasn’t seen this detached, mechanical man much, and she’s forced to reassess her position.  There seems to be greater fear from her in the subsequent chapters after this incident.  It’s clear that he doesn’t care for her child at all, despite the kindness and the gifts, and when she asks for the prisoners to be set free, I wanted to slap her.  Did she just want to invite more trouble or was she really just looking for it all to end for both her and her daughter?  It was crazy to me.

ANNA: This seems to be the first time she really has feared him, and maybe that’s because she cares more about Trudy’s life than her own, I don’t know. All of her other interactions with him seem more controlled, like she knows what he expects from her, but this time it was different: a spontaneous picnic, a sort of scene like they were a regular family. I’m not sure why she thought it was a good idea to ask him to release the prisoners. Was it a test to see how much power she had over him? Even if she really didn’t know the extent of the Nazis’ evil at this point, she’d seen what they’d done to Mathilde for trying to arm the prisoners, so you’d think she’d realize this would be pushing the boundary a bit far.

This is another important scene in which she sees the evil underneath the feelings of inadequacy. And when she learns that he was with the Einsatzgruppen, the division that Rose-Grete talks about in the video Anna was watching of Trudy’s interview, that definitely could play into why she wouldn’t talk to Trudy right then.

SERENA: I agree that Anna might not want to talk about him after viewing that tape with Rose-Grete.  I can see why she wouldn’t.

Do you think Anna’s thoughts about the film hidden near the quarry at the camp indicate that she is working with the resistance again? And if so, why do you think her involvement not mentioned more explicitly?

SERENA: I wondered about her thoughts about that film, but it seems that it was glossed over and we really don’t know why she even mentions it at this point.  I hope that she’s been working with the resistance, though I really cannot see how she would be given her isolation and the fact that the town knows about her relationship with the Nazi.

ANNA: I agree, it doesn’t seem possible that she would still be working with the resistance. So I wonder if the film is something that was left there a while back, and she is remembering it now? Or if she somehow managed to keep working with the resistance and that twist will be revealed later on? Or is the complicated story of her time with the Obersturmfuhrer simply what we’re meant to be focused on right now?

Anna wonders, as the time passes and things look worse for the Nazis, whether the Obersturmfuhrer cares for her. Given his shifting moods, what do you think? And do you think he actually cares for Trudy? Why do you think he gives her the “family” portrait?

SERENA: As for the Obersturmfuhrer, I think he only cares for them inasmuch as he can get from them.  We know that his wife doesn’t leave the house, so Anna has a definite role for him — satisfying him and placating him, etc.  Trudy’s role (though we don’t know if he has his own kids) seems to be that of the child.  He gets to borrow her so-to-speak, though he doesn’t have to do the hard work of caring for her daily or disciplining her all that much.  He also appears to be grooming her with all that marching.  But it’s really like he’s play-acting.  This is what he thinks life would be like if there was no war.  They would be there to please only him.

ANNA: I agree. I think he cares for them in his own twisted way, for what he gets from Anna and how Trudy’s presence makes it seem like they could be a real family in another place and time. It’s almost like the photograph is meant to be some sort of memento of their time together, that it wasn’t meant to last and eventually that will be all there is. I still wonder why Anna kept the photo. She seems to have forgotten it when Trudy mentions it to her, but there must’ve been some reason she didn’t leave it behind in Germany.

What do you think of Trudy’s new friendship with Rainer?

SERENA: Trudy and Rainer seem to have an uneasy friendship, and I think for her part, she likes that he challenges her.  She doesn’t really have anyone doing that to her — just her challenging her mother.

ANNA: I agree that their friendship is an uneasy one. He seems to see more of Trudy than the rest of the world does, though that unnerves her. And since she doesn’t seem to have anyone else to talk to, at least not someone who has some idea of what she may or may not be trying to accomplish with the interview project, Rainer seems to fit the bill. The fact that he was also a history teacher helps her bond with him I think.

What are your thoughts about the final chapter in this section, mainly Anna’s reaction to Trudy’s probing questions about the officer?

SERENA: Anna seems appalled that Trudy knew about the “family” portrait and she refuses to acknowledge anything about him or its existence.  But she really gets mad when Trudy may have suggested that Anna loved him.  To me that seems like her conflicting feelings about him remain unresolved.  She did seem to get used to him, but she was not some doe-eyed woman in love with a Nazi either.  I think until Anna deals with those issues, it will be hard for her to talk about that time.

ANNA: Anna certainly has a lot of unresolved issues, and I think she is blindsided by Trudy’s comments that she actually remembers him. That and the fact that Trudy has seen the picture must unnerve her because things she desperately tries to keep hidden are coming closer to the surface. She does seem quite upset by the suggestion that she loved him, but I wonder if that’s just because the suggestion horrified her or maybe she did have some sort of feelings for him. I think she is sincere when she says she did it all for Trudy, and she would be appalled at any suggestion otherwise. But we’ll see how this all plays out.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your thoughts on the second section.  

Please join us for our fourth and final discussion on Monday, July 3 for Chapters 46 – The End.

Week 2: Discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Welcome to the discussion of week 2’s reading in Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. For this discussion, we’ll be focused on Chapters 16-29. Please chime in below in the comments.

In this second section we see that Anna only thinks of Max when she’s most vulnerable, and when Mathilde questions her about her lack of care toward the prisoners, her answers are very matter of fact.  Do you think she’s shielded herself too well? Was it necessary for her to continue on when Max was taken and she has a daughter to raise?

ANNA: I think she definitely is thinking about how she has Trudy to care for. I think that really comes through in her dealings with the Obersturmfuhrer. But with Max, in addition to having to go on for their daughter’s sake, I don’t think she’s very optimistic about his chances of survival. He was in bad shape when he taken to the camp, and she’s had a glimpse of what life is like in the camp. Plus the fact that she hasn’t had any word of him in a while adds up to be bad news. She also seems to be very matter of fact elsewhere in her life, like at the beginning when she realizes no one is coming to the farmhouse after Jack’s funeral.

SERENA: I agree, Trudy seems to be her sole reason for going onward, and a lack of news about Max coupled with his condition when he was arrested, doesn’t bode well.  She’s a very practical young lady, she seems very mature for her age in that respect.  She’s had to grow up rather quickly.

I do think given her relationship with her daughter that she may have shielded herself from pain too well.  It’s almost like her daughter does not even understand her mother a little bit.  She’s so closed off and the lack of communication between the two is stifling.

Were you surprised by Mathilde’s revelation about her husband? And do you think seeing Trudy has stirred old hurts with her?

ANNA: I don’t know if I was really surprised. She seemed kind of harsh toward Anna about her relationship with Max, so I had been wondering a bit about her personal life. However, I think her agreement to that marriage, and it possibly being why she wanted to help the prisoners, said a lot about who she was as a person and why she joined the resistance. She was very motherly toward Trudy, even if a bit harsh and distant, so it seemed clear to me that her desire for a child was pushed back to the surface. It might even explain why she was so willing to help Anna after she left home.

SERENA: I love that Mathilde seemed to be motherly in a way, though a bit rough around the edges.  I liked that she took the initiative to join the resistance, but it’s sad that she didn’t include Anna in her plans, at least to prepare her for possible consequences.

Having seen Anna’s “relationship” with the Obersturmfurhrer, why do you think Anna is so closed off toward her daughter?

SERENA: I think Anna’s relationship, if you want to call it that, with the Obersturmfurhrer has forced her to do the unthinkable and she wants to shield her daughter as much as she can from it.  In many ways, she seems to be trying to keep her daughter away from him altogether.  She wants her to be as untouched as possible.  I think the consequence of this is that their relationship when she’s older suffers.  But also, Anna doesn’t really remember her own mother and has nothing to base her own motherly relationship on.

ANNA: I wonder why, if Trudy already knew Jack wasn’t her father, she allowed Trudy to think the Obersturmfurher was based on that picture. I feel bad that Trudy is trying to come to terms with that photo and the role her mother played during the war, wondering how she could have been involved with him but not knowing that she was forced to, that she was part of the resistance in a small way, and that he wasn’t her father. I’m sure that would have been a series of events Anna would like to forget, and it would be a really hard thing to bring up in conversation. However, I’m sure it’s also difficult for Trudy to try to come to terms with having a Nazi officer as a father, or so she thinks. I wonder if seeing those books about Nazi Germany in Trudy’s home will spark some kind of discussion.

SERENA: I think Anna’s situation would be hard to talk about no matter what, especially her daughter.  We’re still not sure how young she was when this relationship ended.  Trudy also doesn’t seem to remember much about that time at all, just snippets in dreams.  So that seems to signify that she was young when that arrangement ended.

Why do you think so many Germans are interested in telling their stories?  Is it the money or something more?

ANNA: I think for Frau Kluge in particular money was definitely a motivating factor, but she also seemed to want to justify why she turned in the Jewish families she knew were in hiding. For Rose-Grete, I think it was a way to express the guilt she felt about having done nothing during the war to try to save the Jewish families in her village. Those were the only interviews we’ve thus far, but based on Frau Kluge’s need for reassurance that she didn’t want to be portrayed in a bad light, I wonder how many simply wanted the opportunity to explain their reasons for action or inaction, right or wrong, and to be absolved of any guilt.

SERENA: I tend to agree that Kluge wanted the money, but it seems that so many Germans are looking for absolution of some kind or at least an understanding from those that may just assume that they are Nazis and evil. I also think that Trudy’s little project is part of her attempt at reconciling her mother’s relationship with her Nazi “father.”  I wonder how her mother could have let her go on thinking that for so long.

ANNA: Maybe Anna feels embarrassed about it all, wonders that if she says anything she will be judged for being weak or for not finding another way out of her situation.

What do you think about Trudy’s dreams and what appears to be her descent into drug/alcohol dependency?

SERENA: I think the drugs and alcohol are helping break down internal barriers for Trudy, though it may not be her intention.  It seems to enable her to break through to her past – the memories she has buried for a long time in her subconscious.  I hope that she’s able to stop before she goes to far with those types of crutches though…I also hope that Anna sees those books and realizes that the past is not in the past and that she needs to set things right for her daughter’s sake.

ANNA: It has to be difficult for Trudy to sit across from these people and hear their explanations and then think about what her mother may or may not have done during the war. It emphasizes how the things that aren’t said can do a lot of damage as well. I hope Anna sees the books and the class Trudy teaches as a sign that Trudy really wants to understand.

SERENA: I agree.  I hope that Anna comes to that realization.

What did you think about Roger, his wife, and Trudy? That seems like a mess of a triangle.

ANNA:  I don’t know what Trudy thought she was going to get out of that visit to Roger’s restaurant, aside from a free drink. There’s a reason he’s her ex, after all. But I think it shows how Anna’s isolation has affected Trudy in that she has also isolated herself. Aside from Ruth, she doesn’t seem to have anyone to talk to, and Ruth isn’t the person likely to understand Trudy’s feeling about the German Project.

SERENA: I have no idea what Trudy thought about when she went there, although it is telling that she has no other friends she can turn to.  She can flat out list them on one hand.  She loves to point out how her mother is isolated, but she is as well.  No matter how many students and colleagues she surrounds herself with — no one is let in.

It also seems like Roger’s wife is happy to hold over her happiness with Roger and the success of the business over Trudy.  She seems very conniving.  I wouldn’t want to spend time with either of them.  Then again, I think Roger has a couple of points about Trudy being like her mother.

ANNA: Yes, Roger does have a point there!

Am I the only one wondering what Anna plans to do with the information she learns during pillow talk?

ANNA: Me, too! It seems that she still wanted to have a part in the resistance, particularly in delivering bread to the prisoners, but after that incident where he came to her house a day early and then ordered her to stay at home and be available for him at all times, I’m curious as to how she’d even have the chance to use the information. And it doesn’t seem like she knows any of the other resistance contacts now that Mathilde is gone. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

SERENA: It does seem like Anna wants to be part of the resistance, but there really isn’t any way or her to do it unless someone comes to her at the bakery when he is not there.

Have your feelings changed about Anna and Trudy upon reading this second section?

ANNA: I still feel like I’m being kept at arm’s length from them, though I am beginning to understand their motivations a bit more now. I’m not sure I can say I like either one of them at this point, but they definitely are interested and complicated characters.

SERENA: I think I can get a better feel for Trudy here, but I’m still feeling disconnected from both of them.  They are intriguing and damaged, which has held my interest.  That hasn’t hampered my interest in the story, though.

So do you think that cameraman and Trudy are going to get involved?

SERENA: I think they might, which could complicate the story further.

ANNA: It looks like it might be headed in that direction. That would be good for Trudy, since she is lonely, but I just hope it doesn’t detract from the overall story.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your thoughts on the second section.  What do you think of Anna’s story of survival? Trudy’s research project? Feel free to pose your own questions as well.

Please join us for our third discussion on Monday, June 26 for Chapters 30-45.

Week 6: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Serena and I would like to welcome you to the sixth and final discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

Were you surprised that Volkheimer encouraged Werner to save Marie-Laure? What did you think about Werner’s actions in the Le Blanc house and the time he spent with Marie-Laure?

SERENA: I wasn’t surprised by Volkheimer’s encouragement. It seems that he always looked out for Werner and wanted the best for him. He seemed to know that saving Marie-Laure was important to Werner.

I didn’t actually think too much about Werner’s actions in the house other than hurry up and save Marie! I was glad that he made it in time, even though there was some big tension there with von Rumpel. I also think that in times of war, emotions are heightened, and his connection with Marie-Laure is something that can’t be explained too rationally.

ANNA: I agree. I’m glad that Werner was able to do the right thing when it counted. Overall, I think he was just a kid who grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He really wanted to become something, and his intelligence was twisted by the Nazis and used in deplorable ways.

In addition to the heightened emotions that accompany war, Werner was really just a child, and Marie-Laure’s connection to his childhood and a less complicated time played into his feelings as well. He wanted to be done with the war, and he wanted something good to come out of it, and a love story would be one way that could happen.

I was torn about Marie-Laure’s reaction to finding out about Werner years after the war. It seems that she meant so much more to him than he meant to her. That broke me up, but of course, we saw both sides to the story. Marie-Laure was grateful for Werner saving her, but when it boils down, he was a German and she’d lost her father, so it was so much more complicated than that. Also, Marie-Laure has decades of hindsight and life that Werner was never able to have.

SERENA: I think because he heard her great-uncle on the radio, Werner’s connection to her is stronger. Really she doesn’t meet him until he saves her and he only tells her of what he has done to protect her afterward, so it’s hard for her to feel the same connection. I wasn’t surprised by her reaction because she’s so removed from it now and the loss of so many has left her with little connection to the past. Her only connections now are her work, her lovers, and her daughter, so much more of her life is grounded in the present than in the past.

It’s sad we don’t get to see what would have happened had Werner lived. I wonder if the war would have broken him so much that he had given up his dreams, but he was so creative, maybe not.

ANNA: I wasn’t surprised by her reaction, really. Just knowing how much she meant to Werner from following his thoughts and being sad about his death made me wish it could be that way.

Unfortunately, I think he was already broken by the war. Frederick and the little girl affected him so deeply that he was haunted by them. Maybe that would have lessened over time, and his saving Marie-Laure seemed to redeem himself in his eyes a little bit. His death shows just how sick and beaten down he was, the visions he was having, and his longing for home, the light, etc.

What did you think of Jutta’s meeting with Volheimer and with Marie-Laure?

ANNA: I think Jutta needed Volkheimer’s visit and her subsequent visits to Saint-Malo and to Paris to see Marie-Laure for closure. Werner’s notebook brought her back to the happier, simpler times when they were children, and her visit to Saint-Malo helped her try to understand Werner’s last letter to her about the sea. And I think knowing that he had fallen in love, whether it was real or not, whether it was just for a moment, made her feel as though Werner had lived and done something good despite having gone to the Hitler Youth school and fought for the Nazis, which were things she couldn’t talk about after the war.

SERENA: I think the meeting with Volkheimer was so odd, but he never really talked much. He sort of just drops the duffle off, eats food, and then spends some time with Max before leaving. It’s funny that the husband doesn’t really interact or think much of the meeting…like its normal. But we also get a much more internal story here from Jutta, who has been so much out of the story. It’s good to see her reflect on her brother.

I love that the meeting between Jutta and Marie-Laure is not overly emotional; it seems that they both have moved beyond the past and have their own lives. They have moved on but this gives them the closure they need.

ANNA: It seems like Jutta and her husband had the kind of relationship where they respect their wartime experiences and whatever ways they’ve used to move past them. He seemed to know about Werner but also that Volkheimer’s presence upset or at least jarred Jutta. A lot of the WWII novels I’ve read that focus on Germans in the aftermath seem to portray them as stoic and not overly emotional. Not sure how accurate that is or whether it plays into Jutta’s reaction here.

What do you think about what happened to the diamond, in terms of its overall importance to the story?

SERENA: That diamond…I want to believe that Werner released it into the sea and that he saved the house model to remember Marie-Laure. I want to believe that he let that go for something much more precious — a symbol of the boy with the hopes and dreams he once had before the war tore it up.

ANNA: I wish we’d been given a glimpse of Werner fishing the house out of the ocean and what his thought process was there. Von Rumpel seemed to think Werner was at the house for the same reason he was, but Werner didn’t know anything about the diamond. So it’s likely that he didn’t grasp it’s value, especially not in the midst of the chaos of the cease fire, and that he would believe the house that Marie-Laure set free and the key she gave him to be more precious.

SERENA: Von Rumpel had a one track mind where that diamond was concerned. I’m glad he was dispatched and not by his disease.

ANNA: I agree. He exemplified the Nazi greed and superstition.

What did you think about the scene with Frederick, three decades after the war?

SERENA: As for Frederick, I love that his mother — even though she seemed like she was a social butterfly and not really connected to her son before — continued to care for him after the war. I wonder what happened to his over-bearing father. I love the symbols of birds and how that seems to bring Frederick back to life even if for an instant. His love of birds seemed to be something that was really ingrained in him. It makes sense that a bird would awaken him, even if it wasn’t the picture Werner kept for him.

ANNA: I didn’t know what to think of his mother at first, but she turned out not to be so bad. She truly seemed to care about him, especially when she gets the picture of the birds Werner had meant to send him all those years ago. I thought it was telling that in the midst of getting Marie-Laure out of the house, amid his hunger and thirst, he saw the book of birds and pulled out a specific picture for Frederick. I know Werner felt guilty about what happened with Frederick, but he also was his friend first.

SERENA: I loved that he still thought of Frederick as a friend even though he was guilt-ridden about what happened. I was glad to see that the mother was not that high-society, stuck on connections, and not-caring mother that I thought she was.

I wonder if I would have just been satisfied with the scene where you see Marie-Laure and Etienne reunite and not all this decades later stuff.

ANNA: I don’t think the very last scene in 2014 was necessary, but I’m glad for the ones in 1974. I myself found some closure in learning what happened to Marie-Laure, Jutta, Volkheimer, and Frederick in the years after the war, what they had accomplished and learned. I think for some it is important to how those who survived moved on, whether they made something of themselves, etc.

Do you think the book was deserving of the Pulitzer Prize?

SERENA: As I didn’t read any of the other finalists, I can’t really say. I do think this is a good read and very well done. Is it my favorite in WWII historical fiction, probably not. Not to say that I didn’t find it engaging from start to finish.

ANNA: I agree. Without having read the other contenders, I do believe it is worthy. It is well written, complex, and seems well researched. I really liked it — I think it’s worthy of a 5-star rating — but it isn’t my most favorite novel set during that time.

We hope you enjoyed the book and our discussions as much as we did. Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

We’ve made a slight change in our readalong schedule for the rest of the year. We will announce the next readalong soon. Stay tuned!

WWII Reading Challenge 2017

wwii-2017

Happy New Year! Welcome to the WWII Reading Challenge for 2017.

This is a no-stress reading challenge. Feel free to set your own goal. Read fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, etc. Whatever strikes your fancy. These can be the years leading up to the war, during the war, or in the few years after the war.

Please link your reviews (blog, Amazon, GoodReads, wherever you post) below:

As a thank you for participating, we’ll host an end-of-challenge giveaway for those who read the most WWII-related books between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2017. (Details coming later in the year!)

Pearl Harbor Remembrance

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