Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Aushwitz. 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 intend 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 in. 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.
It had been a good plan: they would jump off the train, meet up, and return to her grandmother’s rural home. But it didn’t work out and only Gretl and her older sister escaped. The sister was ill, and it wasn’t long before Gretl was on her own. She was found and passed from person to person until she’s given to 21 year old Jakob who persuaded his family to look after her. Although baptized Lutheran, she’s raised Catholic, and was given a small crucifix that she kept hidden after leaving Europe for South Africa.
This is a book that’s received a lot of praise, but I can’t give it any additional accolades. I felt the storyline drifted at times. It began as a World War Two drama, became a coming of age novel, and finished as a romance. Perhaps it was supposed to be a romance all along but I couldn’t get into that aspect of it. Given the history between the characters it felt, for want of a better word, uncomfortable.
I also think the book fails when it comes to the subject of apartheid. Gretl came of age in the late 1950s, when many of the apartheid laws were passed and put in place. As someone who’d been marginalized as a child, I wondered how Gretl might’ve felt as she witnessed the results of those laws. I saw one passing mention of apartheid, but Gretl didn’t seem to have any opinion on it and the similarity of having to carry identification papers and being forced to live in particular areas. Her South African life seemed, for the most part, to be a breeze with little for her to worry about. The biggest issue in her life was that her Afrikaner parents didn’t approve of her romantic partner because he’s Catholic.
One of the most powerful scenes is when a traumatized Gretl recollected her time in the ghetto, before she had to board that train for the camp. The narrative included the reactions of those around her, as they realized that the stories they’d dismissed about the Holocaust were actually true. It’s nicely set up with hints of it appearing in the descriptions of Gretl’s nightmares. How did she live with her past? We only get a slight sense of the weight she carried by keeping quiet about it. But how did Gretl feel when she saw similar injustices? Was there guilt that she lived when others didn’t? I’d have liked to have read more along these lines, because the narrative as it was just didn’t appeal to me.
Thank you to The Fiction Guild and Thomas Nelson for my complimentary Advance Reader’s Copy of The Girl From the Train, which I received in exchange for my honest review.
Have you read The Girl from the Train? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (a division of Harper Collins)
Publication Date: 03 November 2015
Page Count: 384
Read more on: Thomas Nelson’s Website