Kommandant's Girl - Pam Jenoff
Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle
ALTHOUGH Pam Jenoff lived and worked in Poland between 1996 and 1998, shortly after Communism ended in Eastern Europe, it wasn’t until early 2002, after a chance meeting with an elderly couple who were both survivors of the Holocaust, that she learned about the Krakow resistance. And it became the historical basis for her debut novel Kommandant’s Girl.
The Kommandant’s girl is Anna Lipowski who, in another life, was Emma Bau, a 19 year-old Jewish girl. But in 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, the newly married Emma escapes from the ghetto, becomes a gentile and goes to live with her husband’s aunt, the indomitable Krysia, and the child Lukasz, ostensibly her brother but in reality the son of a great rabbi.
With her new identity, Anna soon finds herself working in Nazi headquarters as personal assistant to the charismatic Kommandant Richwalder. However, aware of her husband’s involvement with the Krakow resistance, it isn’t long before Anna too is committed to the cause. What she hasn’t bargained for are her feelings for the Kommandant….
Written in a first person narrative, events unfold through the eyes (and mind) of Anna, a flawed heroine, who’s drawn to Richwalder inspite of her religious beliefs and all she knows of the Nazi regime, in particular, in respect of the Jews. But she is very young so perhaps it’s not surprising to discover that her conscience is easily swayed and intimacy with the Kommandant is seen simply as a means to an end. But is it?
As for the Kommandant, like Anna I had to keep reminding myself that he was a high-ranking Nazi responsible for crimes against humanity. But then we see only what Anna sees which is really just the tip of the iceberg. That said, his reaction to scenes – not described – witnessed at Auschwitz, would indicate a man of a far more sensitive nature. Sadly, this was not followed up – surely a missed opportunity.
Kommandant’s Girl is well written, with Jenoff’s clever use of the present tense drawing readers ever deeper into the heart of the action. Yet despite some genuinely heart stopping moments, it does lack any real sense of urgency or even fear. And when Anna’s father miraculously appears in the dead of night by the ghetto wall at the exact same spot as Anna, it’s just one coincidence too many.
It does, however, contain unexpected pearls of wisdom – Anna’s father’s view on the unpredictability of life, for example. “The surprise of who or what might be around the corner, it’s what keeps us going. It is hope. Such foresight of the future, without the ability to change anything….what a curse.” How true.
Kommandant’s Girl and its characters are entirely fictional. The historical events – the war, the Holocaust, the non-Jews who risked their lives to help, even the resistance fighters who bombed a cafe – are not. As testament, it serves its purpose adequately though perhaps not as well as it could. Nevertheless, Kommandant’s Girl is as entertaining as it is thought provoking and evocative – a book worth reading.
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