Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Rose Under Fire"

                The book I’m about to review, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, is the second in a sequence set during World War II.  I will not give away any spoilers if you haven’t read the first book, Code-NameVerity, but I will urge you to read that novel first.  You can tell that the two books were written by the same author, but they have very different storylines.  Once again, I won’t give away anything in this review that will spoil Code-Name Verity, so read on!  Hopefully when you are done reading, you’ll pick up both of these fantastic historical fiction novels.


          Rose Under Fire (Published 2013) begins in 1944 England with our protagonist, Rose, being forced to write a report of one of her fellow pilots crashing her plane and dying.   Rose and the other pilot are both Air Transport Auxiliary pilots during World War II.  Although she is American, Rose has come to England and gotten her job with the help of her uncle.  She and the other girls are civilian pilots who help to transport cargo and planes.  18-year-old Rose longs for a chance to get to fly to France or anywhere else where she can be more of a help.  Her uncle manages to get her a flight to Paris, but on the way back, Rose gets lost.  She is intercepted by German pilots, and sent to the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbruck.  She is sent to Block 32 with the Ravensbruck Rabbits, a group of girls who were all medically operated on by the Germans.  Some girls were forced to have up to five operations on their legs, infecting them with diseases, cutting out muscle, and taking out parts of bone.  With these women, Rose spends six months experiencing the atrocities of the Holocaust and trying to survive.

Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.  A Nazi propaganda photograph.
                The Holocaust has always interested me.  I am not sure what first started my fascination with The Holocaust, but it has been one of the things I have studied most.  In college, I took a class one semester that solely focused on the Holocaust.  I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in DC four times, the most recent of which was two weekends ago.  I have read book after book about every aspect of the Holocaust, and yet I still have so much more to learn.  For me, the reason we need to be aware of it is because my generation will be the last generation that will have any survivors from the Holocaust.  Very soon, there will not be a single voice left alive that can speak of what they experienced.  When the news of what had happened first starting leaking out after World War II, the world sat in shock and horror.  Now, it is out of our immediate past, and we are starting to become more callous to it.  Soon, if we don’t remember it and honor the people millions of people who died during those horrific years, the Holocaust will have no more meaning to people than the Plauge or the Spanish Inquisition.  Those of us who are living right now have a duty to ensure that the horrific events of the Holocaust are not forgotten, and that those who died because of persecution are remembered.  Rose Under Fire is a novel that helps us remember, and helps the youth of our generation see what happened.

                The unfairness of the Holocaust has always terrified me.  Most of the time, you did not survive if you were smarter or more cunning than all the others; you survived because you were lucky.  In this book, we see incredibly strong women sent to gas chambers for no reason other than their numbers were being drawn.  Rose talks about food throughout the book, because it is all she can think about.  They tell stories to pass the time, and one of Rose’s greatest fantasies is to simply go on a lake and rent a boat and buy sodas.  She says, “And that is what makes it so unfair.  It is such a simple fairy story”(p.249), and yet it is one of the only thing she dares hope for anymore.  The Holocaust took strong men, women, and children, and took everything from them, including any real chance of hope.

                One aspect that Elizabeth Wein addresses is that of how much people actual knew during the Holocaust.  One of my favorite scenes is before Rose goes to the concentration camp and the female pilots are listening to the radio.  The radio is telling of the atrocities that are going on in concentration camps, where people are being tortured and killed.  Rose says, “That’s got to be propaganda… You English are as bad as the Germans!...Poisoning girls with gangrene?...It’s like trying to get us to believe that Germans eat babies!”(44).  Little does she know that, in a few months, she will see first-hand that the propaganda is true.  You can make whatever argument you want about whether or not everyday citizens knew what was happening, but this quote puts it in context.  If you were told that 10,000 people were being killed every day in gas ovens, would you believe it?  If you can, it may be because we are now in a generation where we hear about such atrocities, and they are posted on our televisions and on the internet.  But think if you were back in 1945, before the word genocide even existed.  Genocide was a word that came about because of the Holocaust, when the Nuremburg trials were beginning and they needed a name for those atrocities.  For people living in 1945, can you imagine how difficult it would be to believe the horrors like that exist in the world?

The Ravensbruck Rabbits wanted the world to know what happened to them.
 They took secret pictures of their legs in the winter of 1944.
                This book taught me things I didn’t know about before.  When Rose is in Ravensbruck, she gets taken under the wing of the “Rabbits.”  The “Rabbits” are a group of girls that were operated on by the German doctors.  Doctors would take out bones in their legs and switch them with bones in other people’s legs to see if it would work.  They would infect young girls with gangrene and then sew it back up to see what would happen.  They would tear away parts of their muscle down to the bone.  These women were tortured, and it is all real.   Elizabeth Wein’s website has a resource for all 74 Rabbits that were operated on, with their pictures and links to their biographies when she can find them.  In using the Rabbits in her story, Wein has given voice to a group of women who only ever wanted to be heard in the first place.  On the title page at the beginning of the book, there is a list of all the Rabbits that were operated on in Ravensbruck.  This book was awarded the Schneider Family Book Award by the ALA, because of its representation of disability through the Rabbits.

                I really enjoyed this book because it offered a new perspective that I had never even heard of before.  In all the years I’ve been studying the Holocaust, out of all the books I’ve read and studied, I have never heard of an American in a concentration camp.  I guess the author realized that a lot of people would have the same question, because the fist listed resource on her webpage is “Americans in Ravensbruck.”  From what she could uncover, Elizabeth Wein found that there were two native-born Americans in Ravensbruck alone, and that there were a few others that spent a lot of time in America or had American citizenship.  One Ravensbruck inmate, Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, was actually the sister of a New York City mayor.  I think a lot people might wonder why Elizabeth Wein would write a story about an American in a concentration camp, when there were so few in the camp.  I thought that too, at first, but then I realized that everyone that went through that terror deserves to have a story in their memory.  As far as I know, there have not been any stories written about Americans in a concentration camp: they deserve to have their story told, too.  Elizabeth Wein addresses this narrow view in her afterword, where she states that “Rose’s experience is limited to an extremely closed circle of prisoners and their restricted movements… There is a lot more out there than the limited window on Ravensbruck that Rose’s experience provides… just so you know”(350-351).  With a topic as broad as The Holocaust, you have to narrow it down, and Elizabeth Wein got as much of the Ravensbruck experience as she could without giving the text an inauthentic, generic feel.

                In an historical fiction novel, it is hard to separate fact from fiction.  The author has to be extremely careful, because people will walk away from an historical fiction novel feeling like they have learned a lot of facts.  The greatest truth that an author can write about in an historical fiction novel is the experience—it may not have been the exact experience of an individual, but it gives us a glimpse into what that person much have experienced.  Elizabeth Wein did her research.  Her website gives information about different topics from the book—everything from taran (aerial ramming), to the RavensbruckRabbits, to Soviet women pilots during World War II.  Elizabeth Wein even went to a summer institute at Ravensbruck where she slept in the SS soldiers’ barracks at night.

                For those of you who read the book and wonder how much of it is real, I’ll direct us once again to the author’s afterword.  She first discusses the issue of how difficult it is to even get an accurate account, because records were destroyed and people’s memories are not always 100% reliable.  (The issue of living testimony is fascinating, and for further information you could read both Five Chimneys and I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.  Both are written by survivors, and both have differing accounts of the same event.)  Elizabeth Wein then lets us know that Rose’s account is false—she has not recreated any one single survivor’s tale from Ravensbruck.  The important thing she says, though, is this: “What I’d really like to pound into the reader’s head, if there’s any lesson to be learned her, is that I didn’t make up Ravensbruck.  I didn’t make up anything about Ravensbruck…  The terrible and the unbelievable, the gas chambers and the medical experiments and the twenty-five lashes, propping up the dead to make the roll call come out right, the administration and politics of bowls, I did not make up.  It was real.  It really happened to 150,000 women.  And that is just one camp”(p.350).  The experiences were real, it was just the names were changed and the actual words being spoken may never be known.

                I once read somewhere that a person is only ever truly gone when someone says their name for the last time.  When I went to the Holocaust museum a few weeks ago, there is a hallway that has the names of people who were lost during the Holocaust, much like Elizabeth Wein’s list of Rabbits at the beginning of the book.  As I walked down the hallway of the Holocaust Museum, I tried to say as many of the names as I could in my head.  Remembrance is now our charge, and trying to make sure that nothing like this can ever happen.  I don’t think any one person can stop a country from murdering 12 million people.  We can, however, stand up against injustice.  We can stop bullies from bullying children into suicide.  We can stand up against discriminatory laws like bans against gay marriage and laws that allow store owners to turn away gays (sounds eerily familiar to what happened to the Jews, doesn’t it?).  We can stand up against unkindness, injustice, and discrimination.  And even if we are too scared to stand up all the time, we can still make a difference by living lives where we model for those around us justice, kindness, and fairness to everyone.  At the very least, we can whisper a name and remember those who have no one left to remember them.
Elizabeth Wein's website:  www.elizabethwein.com 

Image Sources:
www.goodreads.com  (cover)
collections.ushmm.org (picture of Ravensbruck Rabbit's leg and Ravensbruck concentration camp)

1 comment:

  1. I will definitely check this book out! Great blog!