Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Auschwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks. As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They mean to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first. Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her home. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.
But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered. Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.
The Girl from the Train uniquely spans over around 15 years from the time Gretl is six to age 21. During this time, Gretl learns to adapt to different environments and changes her identity as needed. This novel is a coming of age story. It is also about overcoming tragedy and resiliency.
There is a great deal of history woven into this novel; history of WWII, Poland and Africa specifically. At times the storyline of The Girl from the Train got a little to “political” for my liking, but that might be because political reading is just not my thing. The author does a great job in getting the details right in the harsh settings of occupied Poland, both Nazi and Soviet. The world of secrecy, betrayal, and societal fear makes the reader sweat bullets right along with Jacob.
The story, while based upon tragic historical events, was very hopeful and I enjoyed the historical action intertwined within the plot. It was about a little girl who was on her way to Auschwitz but fled from the train at six years old and was found by a young Polish man, Jakób who is a freedom fighter. He takes Gretl to his family farm where he can protect and keep her safe, and she stays there for three years. There grows friendship between two of them, even there is 13 years gap in age. Jakób’s family is growing and his mother tells him he must find a new home for the Jewish girl. Jakób finds an an article in the paper where they are looking for Aryans to be adopted by South Africans. Jakób takes Gretl to some orphanages until he finally ends up at a Red Cross, where they are aware of the project and they say they will take Gretl. (Personally, I never knew German orphans were sent to South Africa.) From that time on, Jakób has no idea what happens to Gretl nor does Gretl know about Jakób’s life over the next ten years.
After being adopted, she becomes Grietjie Neethling, the beloved daughter of Oom Bernard and Tannie Kate Neethling. Grietjie begins to learn Afrikaans and English and studies scripture at Sunday school, all the while dreaming of one day leaving for college and reconnecting with Jakób. Jakób finds her years later, their bond still strong despite years of separation.
This book is a story of war, redemption, and love, but in all honesty, The Girl from the Train was kind of slow for me – especially the beginning to the middle. I stuck with it though, and by the second half of the book, it began to pick up a bit and keep my attention. I ‘m guessing that the reason it took me a little while to get used to the author’s writing style has something to do with English not being her first language.
About the author: Irma Joubert was a history teacher for 35 years. This experience has stood in good stead re-when it comes to doing research for re uitgebreide historical novels. She writes with empathy and a deep insight JSON personal relationships. She and her husband live in Bloemfontein. Books by Irma Joubert 2011 Winding road, Avon 2011 Homecoming – stories about love, Table Mountain in 2010 Persomi, child brackish rant, Table Mountain in 2009 Beyond Pontenilo, Avon 2009 Safe Harbor, Lapa 2007 Between stations, Lapa 2006 Prohibited ford, Lapa 2006 Far beckons the Southern Cross, Lapa Awards In 2010 Beyond Pontenilo won the ATKV Prize for Romance Novels. Translations Dutch: Far beckons the Southern Cross, between stations and Pérsomi, child of the barren ridge.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publishers and Fiction Guild in exchange for this post, which is my honest review and unbiased opinion.