Book Review: The Winter Orphans
World War II fiction delivers inspirational tales of people who lived through the worst period in history. While horrific and sad, there is always the unspoken message at the end of each tale: This will never happen again. And, of course, that Americans were the good guys. These are comforting messages that no longer can be assumed.
Author Kristin Beck’s second World War II novel, The Winter Orphans, takes place in southern France and is based on real women. The Swiss Red Cross operated refugee camps for displaced children, including Jewish children separated from their parents. With the Germans on the move and the French police complicit, caretaker Rosli Naf realizes she can no longer keep her teenage charges safe at their refuge in an abandoned castle. When the French police arrest every Jewish teenager under her roof, she manages to get Swiss Red Cross leaders involved and take the children home. But she knows it’s only a matter of time before the police will be back. Realizing it’s the only way to keep them safe, she begins training the teenagers on how to flee France and sneak over the mountains to Switzerland or Spain. When she’s fired for ignoring orders to obey French law in order to retain the Swiss Red Cross’s neutrality, her position is given to Anne-Marie Piguet, who continues the mission.
The third point-of-view in this book is given to Ella Rosenthal, a 17-year-old girl who lives at Rosli’s mission. Ella’s parents helped her flee Germany with her younger sister, Hanni, begging the older girl to take care of her sister. For a while, life at Chateau de la Hille was safe, and Ella made friends and even developed a crush on Isaak, a Jewish boy a year older. But after the arrest, Ella has to decide whether to try to sneak out of France and leave Hanni behind, or stay with her sister and risk being sent to a camp in Poland or Germany. When she and Isaak begin a relationship, her decision is even more fraught.
How do people come to a place where they accept young adults being arrested just for being Jewish? Hitler and his followers worked for decades. Jews were blamed for World War I, for German economic issues; called the worst kind of names and had their rights taken away one by one. By the time of the “Final Solution,” Hitler had succeeded in making them less than human. People could look away at what was happening, even say the Jews deserved it, because of the years of these messages.
Reading The Winter Orphans, especially scenes where Swiss Red Cross executives casually dismiss the fate of Jewish children, brings up the question of “Could it happen here?” Sadly, that question has already been answered in the affirmative. Just ask parents of trans children, who have to flee Texas to escape child abuse investigations. Or the parents of a 10-year-old girl who had leave Illinois for Indiana, to get an abortion after being raped. Now she’s a target, and so is the doctor who helped her. Trump supporters target LGBTQ+, authors, teachers, and anyone who votes Democrat or disagrees with them. They are called pedophiles—“pedos.” Anyone who doesn’t support right-wing extremists are being actively dehumanized by them. At the same time, just as Hitler and his supporters did, they are worming their way into state and local governments in order to change voting and other laws to give them power.
“Could it happen here?” becomes “Are we watching it happen right now?”
Rosli and Anne-Marie were real people; Ella is based on the children the women helped. And Beck never lets us forget that Ella is a child who misses her mother and wants to go to school and be an artist when she grows up. The scenes of Ella and Isaac talking about the house they wish to raise their children in, while wondering if they’ll be shot by Nazis, are particularly cutting.
It is easy to imagine Proud Boys as Brownshirts for the Republican party.
The Winter Orphans is a flawlessly written book, and readers should make sure to take in the author’s note at the end of the book about these real-life heroines. Then imagine yourself in Europe during World War II. Would you be one of the brave, selfless ones risking everything to help people who were targeted for death? Or would you turn your head away because of “neutrality” or high gas prices?
Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.
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