From Harvard to Holocaust by John Stoessinger


It would be interesting to read Stoessinger’s story written by someone other than himself. Why? First of all he does not give himself enough credit for his achievements and the difficult path he had to wander. Secondly he is far too attached and close to the events, especially in his personal relationships, to open up about them or be objective.

Instead throughout the book there is a level of disconnect, which is completely normal for people who have been through horrific trauma, especially during the Holocaust.

Whilst he is describing his relationships there seems to be a lack of conscious thought about his own role in the failure of his relationships. The almost indifferent way he talks about his philandering, his abandonment of wives and children, and the femme fatale, who almost destroys him.

If you go all the way back to the lack of a father in his life, and the way his mother didn’t protect him from his abusive stepfather, things become clearer. It is almost as if he didn’t want to subject his own children to the disappointment of being hurt by him. Ironically that is exactly what happened anyway.

Being pulled from the arms of his beloved grandparents, the only ones who really showed any compassion or warmth for him, is probably the root and cause of most of his emotional problems. The fact his mother and stepfather couldn’t save them is secondary to the fact that in his mind he is the one who abandoned them and couldn’t save them from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

On top of that horrific thought and knowing they must have suffered, is the knowledge that their bodies are in a mass grave. Nameless, homeless, unclaimed and forever beyond reach for him.

When I say emotional I mean his complete detachment from his own experiences and choices, as he tells the story of his life. I think without knowing it Stoessinger has actually opened up a very large window into his heart and soul, perhaps just not the window he planned to present and open in this book.

I received a copy of this book via Edelweiss.

The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy


Books about the Second World War tend to focus on the monstrosities perpetrated by the Nazi’s and their collaborators during the reign of Hitler.

The war was not just fought by sadists and people willing to cross into the deepest depths of inhumanity. It was also fought by normal men, women, boys and girls. The architect, the baker and the candlestick maker.

Leroy gives us an interesting and thought-provoking look at the men behind the uniforms and the relationships made within the confines of wartime occupation.

Vivienne has to choose between safety for her children and herself, and the innocent souls being annihilated by the Germans. It also becomes clear that the majority of Germans are confronted with the same choice. Their families, and their own lives or that of some nameless victims.

Gunther tells Vivienne about superior officers, who have dared to speak out against the mass murder and maltreatment of others, and are now bullet fodder at the Eastern front. The German war and propaganda machine does not take kindly to any kind of criticism.

So the elephant in the room is whether the threat of death, violence or deportation would be enough to make you, me or anyone else stay silent. Or indeed instead try in our own way to help, even if it is only small ways.

Those who stood and protested out loud were soon disposed of. The brave men, women and children, who fought silently by opposing the regime and the occupiers are the unsung heroes. Hiding prisoners, feeding them, helping them to escape. All of these things are huge in the face of the reality of being discovered.

Vivienne is confused by her reaction to Gunther. In those stolen moments together he is no longer the enemy, nor the soldier, he is just a man who wants her as much as she wants him. She learns about his life before the war, his family and career. She also has a friendly relationship with another soldier, who has come to her aid on behalf of Gunther. She finds herself in between a rock and a hard place.

Is she betraying her fellow islanders? Are the girls enjoying some fun with the German men, are they traitors for wanting a little attention and romance? Very thin lines and sketchy boundary issues for both sides of the coin.

I think the real question for me was whether Vivienne’s attempt to balance the scales of justice was done because she felt guilty or wanted to redeem herself in some way. I would rather believe that the instinct to do the morally right thing, which isn’t always the safest option, was a choice she made instinctively.

The ending is bitter-sweet. The repercussions remain unspoken, only the positive is relevant and that is exactly how Leroy finishes the story. She wants the reader to take that smidgen of positive in the midst of all that hate, pain and negativity. To remember that we are capable of bright moments within the deepest dark.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of Harlequin UK and MIRA UK.

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff


The story of two young women in occupied Poland during the Second World War, who have to hold the remnants of their small family together. Their father is dead and their mother not far from crossing that particular threshold herself.

Mother has held on to a secret for an entire lifetime, a secret that is a death sentence for her children in this particular climate and period in time.

The way the Ruth and Helena perceive their situation changes drastically after Helena inadvertently learns the truth. Suddenly past behaviour, the choice of hospital for their mother and the lack of relatives around them takes on a different meaning altogether.

Identical twins are usually connected in a way other siblings aren’t, but I don’t get that feeling from Helena and Ruth. There is jealousy, spite and a need to own what the other sister has and feel what the other sister is feeling, but close they are not.

They have been drawn apart by the heavy burden of responsibility they are both carrying upon their young shoulders. Ruth has become the surrogate mother to her younger siblings and Helena has become the surrogate father and provider to them all.

Helena seems to step away from the bubble of family to develop her own identity and in a sense she does so in a way that is detrimental to her siblings. She risks her life and their lives by hiding a fugitive, by hoarding food and by keeping secrets.

The interaction between Sam and Helena is perhaps a little on the overzealous side and fits uncomfortably into the seriousness of the setting, however they are both still very young. The bravado of children in the midst of the bones and ashes of the dead.

The tragedy that leads to the catastrophic chain of events isn’t the betrayal, as far as I am concerned. The fact both Ruth and Helena choose to lie to protect their siblings instead of telling them the truth, especially the older ones, eventually leads to a fatal misunderstanding.

The betrayal plays a pivotal role in the redemption and the guilt. It also serves as a reminder of what might have been. I would go as far as to say that perhaps one of the characters in the book was possibly relieved at the outcome and reluctant to take care of the ensuing consequences.

Jenoff manages to capture the complexity of family relationships and the tentacles of support it can offer. She does this without painting the picture with sugary sweetness and puppy dog tails. Simultaneously Jenoff creates a realistic scenario of sibling rivalry, the struggle to leave the nest and the reality of being a parent instead of an elder sibling to younger children.

It is harsh, cruel, unfair and emotional. It is the silent fate of many casualties of occupied countries, the people who are never counted or heard from, because the past is often left buried forever.

This is a story, which is likely to provoke emotive responses, regardless of whether it is due to the historical setting or the choices made by characters. It is also written in a way that is suitable for younger readers who are perhaps interested in historical fiction with a healthy portion of romance.

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Read The Last Embrace or The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff