Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Alexis Landau presents her story through the lives of three key characters between August 1940 and August 1945. They were all Jewish and each of them had different experiences during the time of the Nazi occupation in Europe. Chapter 1 is set in February 1945, then the story reverts to the past only to return to February 1945 in chapter 29. Here it feels as if the book has made a complete circle.
Vera is a mother who, when hearing the directive, “All persons between the ages of seventeen and fifty-five who do not possess French citizenship, must report for internment” (3), decided to leave their daughter, Lucie, in the care of Agnes the governess. Vera manages to escape from the camp, join up with her husband and flee to America where they become integrated into a circle of similar people. All Vera can think about is how she can eventually get her child back, and when she hears that Oradour-sur-Glane was mistakenly targeted by the Nazi SS and all residents massacred she goes into decline. Finding out what had happened “had grown into Vera’s obsession, a solitary one, while Max (her husband) retreated into his work” (198).
When her parents have to follow the directive, Lucie, their four-year old daughter, goes with Agnes to Oradour-sur-Glane, the rural village where Agnes’s younger sisters share a farm with various uncles, brothers-in-law and their children. “At first, she (Lucie) felt ugly compared to them, with her dark hair and white skin, but after a while it mattered less’ (32). In 1942, after a visit to the farm of a German soldier, Agnes decided that it would be best for Lucie if she lived with the Sisters of St. Denis until the end of the war.
Sasha had gone to America with his mother after the ‘Great War’, to live in a neighbourhood on the east coast. It was “rich in gossip, but poor in every other aspect” (24). His mother taught him to love the stories that circulated from tenement to tenement like wildfire. When the second world war arrived, most Americans believed that they were exempt from legislation in regard to Jewish populations in Europe. Sasha wasn’t so sure. In his early twenties, he went to Hollywood as a script writer. He couldn’t ignore the war on the other side of the world, as he experienced feelings of deep foreboding when he heard of the dire situation of the Polish Jews. He believed that “this war could be the worst crime of the Twenty-first Century” and he was determined “to be on the ground, shoulder to shoulder with the other soldiers”, and to find out “what kind of man he was” (106).
The author has crafted this novel to provide the reader with the story through alternating the chapters via the experience of these three characters. She has also included a glimpse into the successful and generous lives of many Jewish families. It is obvious that Vera and her husband lived a privileged life in France after leaving Russia just before the revolution, and again when escaping to America where they found many who were willing to “connect those who needed help with those who could dispense it” (94). Many of these people were associated with the film industry in California so the reader learns something of this industry.
One cannot help but feel horror and empathy for the many Jewish people during this time in history and I believe Alexis Landau, through her writing, heightens these emotions. This is a serious book about the lives of Jewish people exiled from their homelands as well as a sad book about the separation of a mother from her child, the guilt that often accompanies motherhood and a mother’s determination to return to France from America to search for her daughter. Yet there is humour, as in the description of the doctor Vera’s husband has determined she must see to overcome her melancholy. “He instantly reminded Vera of a turtle, with his small rounded head tilted to the side as he gazed at them inquisitively, his wrinkled neck straining out of his collared shirt” (196). Her descriptive writing brings the people and places in this story vividly to life.
Just as Vera’s marriage is breaking down, she meets Sasha who has returned injured from fighting in Europe, and it is he who will step in and help her return to France to search for her lost daughter. He also has to reconcile with the situation of his birth. He had been haunted by the suspicion that his father might have been a German soldier that his Russian born mother had met during WW1.
This is a profound and engaging story.
Those Who Are Saved
by Alexis Landau