The Kommandant’s Girl

Written by Pam Jenoff
Review by Ken Kreckel

Emma Bau has been married only a few weeks when the Germans smash into Poland. In a short time, her husband Jacob disappears into the Resistance, leaving her and her parents to try to survive in the city’s Jewish ghetto. Eventually, the Resistance smuggles her out to live with Jacob’s Catholic cousin, Krysia. Taking the new name of Anna Lipowski, she and Krysia together assume the care of an orphaned Jewish boy. A chance meeting with the local Nazi governor, Kommandant Richwalder, results in a disturbing offer—personal assistant to the most powerful man in the city. Urged to take on the job by the Resistance, Anna begins a new life, one that will lead her into a dangerous game of espionage. Worse, her new position soon causes intense personal conflicts over all that she holds dear, especially her marriage vows to the absent Jacob.

Told in the first person, this is a story of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a young, naïve girl. Forced to grow rapidly in this new, hostile world, she not only survives, but courageously fights the Nazi oppression as best she can. It is a tale not only of heroism, but of humanity, in all its complexity and ambiguity.

The author does an outstanding job of avoiding the clichés and caricatures sometimes endemic to this topic. Her characters experience real emotions, from Anna’s feelings of attachment for her boss, to the Kommandant who appears conflicted about his own role. As the author is a historian who has lived and worked in Poland, her descriptions of occupied Krakow likewise ring true.

Although primarily a compelling romance, the novel stands as a fitting testament to the real people who struggled and died during those most troubled of times.