Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Kommandant's Girl by Pam Jenoff

Nineteen year-old Emma Bau has only been married for three weeks when the Nazis invade her native Poland. After her husband, Jacob, is forced to disappear underground as part of the resistance movement, Emma soon finds herself imprisoned in the ghetto with her parents. There she meets one of the resistance leaders and with his help, she is able to escape the ghetto and live under an assumed, non-Jewish identity.

Emma’s already precarious situation is complicated by her introduction to Kommandant Georg Richwalder, a high-ranking Nazi official who insists that Emma come to work for him as his assistant. In this position, Emma has the opportunity to provide information to the resistance movement and potentially help her still-imprisoned parents. To do so, however, she must become perilously close to the Kommandant, a troubled man with a dark secret whose romantic intentions are clear. Emma makes the difficult decision to become involved with the Kommandant and, as their relationship intensifies, she is forced to acknowledge her own undeniable feelings for him. Desperately, Emma wrestles with questions of loyalty and duty until at last she is able to locate information sought by the resistance movement regarding the Nazi liquidation of the ghetto. Spurred by this information, the resistance undertakes the fateful bombing of a Nazi café, unleashing a chain of events that will change Emma’s life, and the lives of those she loves, forever.

Wow, where do I start with this book? First off, I would classify this in the YA camp, rather than in the romance camp. Mature in terms of theme, but I would let my12 yo read it, even though there are sexual themes in it. I'd liken it to the experience I felt when reading Summer of My German Soldier for the first time (although it's a little more mature than that) and of watching the TV movie Holocaust, which was likely the first real humanized depiction of life in the ghettos and camps, and included an element of the Resistance as well. Not only did my parents encourage my 12 year old self to watch it, every Jewish family I knew was riveted to the TV for a week. At the time, it was the equivalent of Schindler's List. Having said that...

Emma is a 19 year old girl, only married a few weeks, when her husband basically deserts her to join the Jewish resistance in Poland. She goes to live with her parents, only to find that they've been taken to the ghetto. Unwilling to live alone and on the run, she goes to the ghetto to live with them.

While in the ghetto, she meets several young people who are also part of the resistance. Through them, her husband gets her out and she goes to live in Krakow with his Catholic aunt by marriage under an assumed Catholic identity, Anna. (Ed note: this was not uncommon – many Jews hid during the war by assuming gentile identities). Also coming to live with Krysia is Lucasz, the 3 year old son of the most prestigious rabbi in the area, whose mother Emma witnessed shot dead in the ghetto.

Krysia, who has lived quite high in the social community, decides that the best way to hide "Anna" is right under the noses of those who would seek her. She hosts a dinner party, and among the invited is the Kommandant Georg Richwalder – the 2nd highest ranking Nazi in Poland. He is immediately attracted to Anna and invites her to become his personal assistant. At Krysia's urging, Anna accepts the position. She is uncomfortable with this for a couple of reasons: 1) how can a Jew work for the Nazis? 2) She feels disloyal to her husband Jacob, because although she refuses to acknowledge it, she was attracted to the Kommandant as well. But one does not turn down a Nazi of his rank when one is posing as a young Pole, so she accepts.

What follows is the story of Anna and the Kommandant's relationship, how Anna begins to feed information from his office to the Resistance, and Anna's evolution from young, naïve girl into a woman who is sometimes foolish, but also becoming more worldly, jaded, and disillusioned. She is torn between convincing herself that everything she does is to once again be reunited with her husband and parents, yet finds herself having strong feelings for the Kommandant and enjoying her time with him. When it's determined that the information the resistance needs is located at the Kommandant's house, she takes the next step and begins an affair with him, once again convincing herself that it's for the greater good, yet enjoying and loving his touch.

My thoughts:
Several things occurred to me while I was reading this book, and after I closed it. I could not separate my innate life experiences and education as a Jew from the overall literary journey. The Kommandant is portrayed as a cultured, attractive man, well-versed in the arts and appreciative of those around him. Richwalder is shown in a very sympathetic light, and yet, Anna is constantly reminding herself that he is a Nazi, and it is her job to bring information from his office to the resistance. He is fully aware of what is happening in the ghettos and camps in Poland and Germany, and yet both the reader and Anna see how heavily this weighs upon him. No Jew likes to admit that any Nazi, especially a high ranking one, might have feelings other than hatred. Feelings of compassion, of love, of regret for his actions. In this, I felt anger even as I wondered what went through the minds and hearts of these men.

When we find out that Richwalder's wife was Jewish, and she killed herself because Richwalder did not stop the extermination of her father, I found myself wondering further. First, at the reality of a high-ranking Nazi having a Jewish wife at all, and second, wondering at his angst (for he had a lot if it). Was he truly worried at the plight of the Jews, or was he simply feeling guilt at the fate of his wife? This was revealed near the end of the book, and it was my only time during my reading of thinking, "That could likely never happen."

I found myself identifying with Anna on several occasions, cringing with her as she encountered many obstacles to her core values. Working everyday in Nazi HQ, where the standard greeting is the raising of one's arm and the shouting of "Heil Hitler" (which BTW, almost killed me to type). She notes that she always mumbles it and says something to the effect of "Kill Hitler". Or when Krysia insists that they must go to church, and she encounters having to kneel to pray and actually take communion. As a Jew, I can't imagine it. I've been to Catholic church with my husband a handful of times in 24 years – once for Christmas mass when I was 19 (Emma/Anna's age), twice for weddings, and for a couple of funerals. Each time, I was incredibly uncomfortable, with the imagery and idolatry and the constant kneeling (in which I did not partake), and with communion. I felt conspicuous in my non-participation, but the idea of being forced to participate would have made me want to vomit. I say this not to criticize the Catholic community, but simply to point out how deeply ingrained Judaism is and how much an anathema it can be to a Jew to partake in Catholic ritual.

The moral ambiguity of Anna's actions as she sleeps with Richwalder are truly only addressed by one character, and that is a girl that Anna met in the ghetto, a member of the resistance, who (it turns out) has a crush on her husband. Anna cannot really bring herself to examine her actions. She feels angry and abandoned by her husband, but at the same time justifies her actions by assuring herself that everything she does is so that she can be together with her husband and parents again after the war. I could actually imagine how a teenager, alone and feeling confused and abandoned, finding herself unwittingly, embarrassingly, and ashamedly attracted to a Nazi old enough to be her father could find herself in a place of moral uncertainty. There was a bit of payback, daddy issues, and plain old wanting human touch at play there. That said, it's offensive to me to portray a relationship between a Jew and a Nazi during that time period (ok, any time period). There's a lot of baggage to unpack there.

Much of the book rings true, and agrees with much of my understanding of the nature of the resistance and of the time. There are things that gave me pause, but I suppose that's why they call it historical fiction. The last 50-75 pages are where I believe that most readers will have the most difficulty with the book. It's where I felt that the author took the easy way out for some characters, and for others took the only obvious and logical ending. This is a book about the Holocaust after all. She left the door wide open as to what became of Anna/Emma, and I think this will bother many readers. For me? While I would have liked to know if she survived the Holocaust, that would have required an epilogue (5 years later...) which just would not have fit. In that, I'm grateful for some restraint on Jenoff's part. I'm satisfied not knowing what happened. I think that's a product of growing up learning about the Holocaust basically from birth, living it, breathing it in every fiber of my being my entire life – there are so many unanswered questions, and it's simply the nature of the beast. I'm accepting of that – that we may never know what happened to some people. Others may not so readily accept the ending.

Written in first-person, many of Anna's thoughts are superficial as she struggles to keep her emotions out of what she is doing. Yet at the same time, as I mentioned, I felt her pain as she struggled with several weighty issues. I've read some reviews that criticized the book for not having enough emotional depth of character, but I disagree. I think the line walked is perfect. There was enough to satisfy me, but it wasn't so deep that I would be wary of allowing my young teen to read it.

Lots of moral ambiguity in this book. Lots of thought-provoking issues. But I think it's an important topic, and for the most part, well done. One I'd recommend for both adults and teens as historical fiction and as a source of education for those unfamiliar with the German occupation of Poland and the Jewish resistance movement in Poland.

This is from Mira, and you can buy it from Amazon here or at eHarlequin here.


  1. I enjoyed reading this book, anyway I don't like it at all. In my opinion Emma was head over heels in love with Richwalder and at the end when he shot himself she told him "I love you". She recognised she loved him, so what about jacob? I think it has no sense when at end of the story she thinks about meeting him in the future. Besides there was no chemistry between them and he worried more about the resistent and himself than he did for Emma. On the other hand, what kind of jew is Emma? Sometimes I thought she was an atheist!

  2. This is ahistorical piece of shit, not book.


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