The German Girl
Berlin in 1939 is seen through the eyes of Hannah Rosenthal, who starts her tale with “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.” Spoiler alert: she doesn’t. But her desperation and unhappiness are conveyed immediately. A girl who used to be her friend will no longer acknowledge her. Her professor father has been detained on specious charges and may be held again. Her mother has retreated inward.
In New York City in 2014, Anna Rosen also has a mother who has given up. She was three months pregnant with Anna when her husband disappeared. He was later pronounced dead, although like many people who were never found on that day in September in 2001, there was no body to bury.
Hannah, her parents, and her best friend Leo and his father seek refuge in Cuba, but her father, Leo, and his father aren’t allowed to disembark. Hannah’s mother, like Anna’s mother, is pregnant when her husband is separated from her. The son she raises in Cuba becomes Anna’s grandfather, Gustavo. Hannah is her great-aunt.
The German Girl is both an engrossing and a frustrating read. The parallels between Hitler’s Germany and Castro’s Cuba feel heavy-handed. Adult Hannah loses her pharmacy to the state just as her family lost their home to the Nazis. The loss of Anna’s father in the September 11 attacks piles on yet another tragedy. But, Hannah and Anna are strong protagonists. Both are forced to grow up too quickly, to become the parent to their mothers. Finding each other, when Anna and her mother visit Hannah in Cuba in 2014, provides a form of closure for Hannah and for Anna, a sign that her mother will join the living again.