September 1939. Overnight, Jewish nineteen-year-old Emma Bau's world is turned upside down when Germany invades Poland. And after only six weeks of marriage, her husband Jacob, a member of the Resistance, is forced to flee.
Escaping the ghetto, Emma assumes a new, Christian identity and finds work at Nazi headquarters. As secretary to the charismatic Kommandant Richwalder, Emma vows to use her unique position to gather intelligence for the Resistance, by any means necessary.
Poignant, affecting, and gripping, Kommandant's Girl is the beautifully written story of one woman's struggle to survive one of the darkest periods of human history.
Whilst it wasn't a deliberate choice on my part, it does seem very fitting to be posting about this book on Remembrance Day, where we remember all those who have fought and died for their countries over the years. In this case, those we are remembering are the Polish resistance who fought so hard for their country during World War II.
When I started to think about what I was going to write for this review, I realised that most of the time when I do read a book about Polish history I am mainly concentrating on the events of World War II. That doesn't discount what I am sure is a fascinating history of the country before that but rather even nearly 70 years on, the terrible events that took place there are still very much in the modern consciousness. I suspect another factor may well be that the country itself was relatively closed off during the Communist regime in effect blocking readers around my age from knowing too much about the country. Thinking about it, there are very specific times in interest in several other country's histories that I concentrate on too.
This main character in this book is Emma Bau. She is a young, recently married Jewish girl living in the city of Krakow just before the invasion of Poland by the Nazis. She has been married to Jacob for a few short weeks. He is something of an activist so when the invasion comes, he knows that he will be targeted and so he has to leave Emma as he goes into hiding. Initially, she heads for the ghetto in the city to be with her parents, but it isn't long before she is found alternative accommodation with his Catholic aunt Krysia. When she is smuggled out of the ghetto she is also given the responsibility to look after a small orphan boy by the name of Lukasz.
Obviously living outside the ghetto means that she needs to assume a new identity and so she becomes Anna Lipowicz. All evidence of her marriage to Jacob must be removed. It isn't long before Anna catches the eye of Herr Kommandant Georg Richwalder, a very important figure in the Nazi administration of the city. He is immediately attracted to the young woman and so employs her as his personal assistant to work at Nazi Headquarters. This gives Anna the perfect position to be able to provide information to the Resistance movement, at great personal risk to herself.
It isn't long before Anna is asked to obtain information by any means necessary, even if that means that she must do the unthinkable and break her marriage vows. Anna is conflicted though. She loves Jacob, but she is attracted to the Kommandant, and she knows that by getting closer to him and becoming more trusted by him means that she needs to not get caught by the Kommandant, not catch the attention of the informers at work inside the headquarters, or outside when she is meeting the members of the Resistance, all in order to keep herself, and Krysia and Lukasz, alive.
Anna not only has to answer the question how far would you go for the cause of freedom, but also what happens when you are attracted to the wrong man at the wrong time and can she face the consequences, whatever they are going to be, of the risks that she takes in order to survive during the darkest days of World War II.
One thing that the author did seem to take a lot of care with is giving the Kommandant a human face which is something you don't often see. That doesn't mean that his role or actions are glossed over or denied but he is shown as being conflicted at times and certainly unlucky in love.
This is the kind of novel that I love to read - history, drama, romance, tension all rolled up into a book that you can get lost in and from purely that perspective I really enjoyed this book. In the Author's Note Jenoff explains that the story is fictional, although some of the events are true, but that she tried to remain true to the spirit of the Resistance, and as long as you read the book with that framework in mind, then you will enjoy it. There are some plot holes, some lucky coincidences and the ending is conveniently neat in some ways but for all that I am glad to have finally read Jenoff after talking about it for ages now. I will definitely be reading more!
Some times it must be tricky for an author to keep readers happy. For example, in this book I both liked the fact that the ending is kind of vague in that you know that the book is over and the characters will go off into their sunset whatever that happens to be, but in other ways I really wanted to know exactly what happened to them. Maybe I will get some resolution in relation to this when I read the connected book, The Diplomat's Wife. I've already requested it from the library.
Don't forget to check out Pam Jenoff's recent guest post for us. Another book with a similar setting but a very different feel is Douglas W Jacobsen's book The Katyn Order. Check out my review here.