The German Girl
By Armando Lucas Correa
Translated from Spanish by Nick Caister
Cuban-born writer Armando Lucas Correa opens The German Girl, his first novel, in 1939 Berlin where 12-year-old Hannah Rosenthal is desperately trying to cope with the increasingly harsh anti-Semitism of post-Kristallnacht Germany.
The Nazis, whom Hannah and her best friend Leo call the “Ogres,” are ramping up their efforts toward establishing their racially pure state. Facing the increasing horrors of state-sponsored persecution, so clearly evident in what Hannah’s mother sees as “too many broken windows,” the time has come to leave. With precious tickets in hand, Hannah and her parents prepare to board the MS St. Louis to escape the lethal madness of Nazi Germany.
I should note at this juncture that the St. Louis intersected my professional life on several occasions. As director of government relations for Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), I dealt for several years with the issue of historical recognition of Canada’s refusal to allow the ship’s desperate passengers to enter Canada and the “none is too many” exclusionary immigration policy that underpinned that fateful decision. Toward the end of my career with CJC, I was finally able to secure government funding to place a fitting memorial to the St. Louis in the immigration museum at Pier 21 in Halifax.
As such, I read The German Girl with great interest. But the story is so much more than the compelling account of Hannah’s last few months in Germany, the fascinating details of her voyage on the St. Louis, the heartbreak of the ship’s denied landing, and the pathos of her subsequent life in Cuba.
Correa soon introduces us to 12-year-old Anna Rosen, who lives with her single mother in present-day New York City. The author then organizes his novel around parallel narratives of Hannah and Anna. Both, for example, have lost fathers under calamitous circumstances. Cuban authorities ultimately rescinded the entry visas secured in Germany and permitted only a tiny number of St. Louis passengers to disembark. Hannah and her mother are among those who leave the ship; her father is denied permission and later becomes one of the Holocaust victims among those forced to return to Europe. In Anna’s case, her mother was pregnant with her the day her father went to work on 9/11 and never returned.
As it turns out, though, the narratives are fated to converge: Anna’s Cuban-born father was Louis Rosenthal, for whom Hannah played the role more as mother-figure than aunt.
Hannah’s troubled life in Cuba reminds us that not all those who left the ship in Cuba were spared the everlasting effects of the “Voyage of the Damned.” It is only in her late- 80s after decades of lonely isolation that Hannah finally reaches out to her grand-niece. She sends Anna a package of family photos and mementoes of Berlin in the 1930s and her fateful transatlantic voyage. As Hannah says, “It would have been unjust toward my parents if I had concealed her legacy. You need to know where you come from. You need to know how to make peace with the past.”
Anna’s mother would do well to take this lesson to heart. Her grief in widowhood is inconsolable and Anna can only fill in the gaps of her father’s absence through her own imagination. The package from Cuba becomes the catalyst for uncloaking the mystery of Anna’s lineage and loosening her mother from the iron grip of tragic memory. The two will embark upon their own fateful journey to Cuba, not to preserve their lives, but to discover their true heritage and ultimately to help both Anna’s mother and her great-aunt make their peace with the past.
Under the spell of her great-aunt in Havana, legacy and destiny come together for Anna. She is enlightened about her father’s place in the family, as she learns the tragic circumstances of Hannah’s life under both Hitler’s Germany and Castro’s Cuba. But Anna’s future is also infused with new meaning as she learns of the mantle she must henceforth assume as the last of the Rosenthals, an astonishing blessing for Hannah as her own end nears.
Correa deftly peels back the layers of the two-sided coin of hope and loss. Ultimately this plays out in the human condition as we travel on our own voyage in search of family, home, love and redemption. Correa richly brings his characters to life in a mostly sympathetic way as they seek their path along this often treacherous, but ultimately rewarding, journey. The echoes of the contemporary refugee experience in our own troubled world clearly reverberate as well.
The German Girl is a compelling story and a welcome addition to the shelf of contemporary fictional accounts of the Shoah in its various dimensions.