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German Refugee Girl In 1930s Europe
on 16 September 2016
My nine-year-old daughter has started becoming aware of the atrocities of World War Two, so I have read this aloud to her at bedtime. It is the memoir of the author's own childhood, when as a nine-year-old she had to flee Germany with her family in 1933 because her famous writer father had been satirising the Nazis, and the family were also ancestorally Jewish. This is the first part of a trilogy, and takes events up to when Anna, the title character, is twelve.
Anna had been enjoying an upper-middle-class life in Berlin, and is an engaging, intelligent and artistically talented child. A policeman tips off her father that the family have to leave the country, and they manage to do so literally twenty four hours before the Nazis arrive at the house. For the next three years they are refugees ("Mummy, what's a refugee?"), wandering through Switzerland, then Paris, and finally to England. Money is very tight; they can no longer afford servants so Anna's mother has to learn how to cook and sew; Anna's father struggles to sell his writing and almost dies of shame when Anna is offered charity; and Anna has to go to a school where she is the only child who cannot speak French. Little snippets of what is happening in Germany arrive via visiting adults, but on the whole, Anna doesn't hear much about that. For most of the book she regards the whole experience as a glorious adventure, and her parents help her find the humour in life - for example, her father's mock complaint that Hitler is offering such a low reward for his capture.
If this was just a children's novel, it would be a classic. Because it is also true, it had quite an impact on my daughter, who kept wanting to know what happened next, and did the entire family survive? (I haven't read the next two books, so I don't know.) It is beautifully written; it focuses very much on what a child wants to know (there are plenty of descriptions of cakes and drawing supplies and the subjects Anna studied at school), and every chapter finishes on a little note of tension, making it an exciting story in its own right. Reading age 8+ years.