Through the eyes of 13-year-old Tobias Koertig, To Zenzi describes the hellscape that was Berlin in the waning days of World War II. The book begins with Tobias’s parents’ death during an air raid. From there, Tobias is recruited to join the army to go to the eastern front in a futile attempt to stop the Russian advancement. At this point, it is clear the Germans have lost, but they continue to recruit children as soldiers.
After being mistaken for someone who performed heroically in battle (when he actually hid in a trench), Tobias returns to Berlin, is awarded a medal by Hitler himself, and becomes Hitler’s eyes on the ground—his illustrator of the devastation of Berlin as the dictator remains underground in the infamous Führerbunker.
There are moments of levity throughout the book and a wry, dark sense of humor appropriate for the subject matter. For instance, the general at the front has a bulbous, allergic nose that eventually gets shot off his face, and Hitler is a ridiculous, paranoid character whose life in the bunker is one of filth and absurdity. But there’s also some hope: What keeps Tobias going through everything is his love for the titular character, Zenzi.