Pam Jenoff

"The Kommandant's Girl"

(Reviewed by Jana Perskie MAR 20, 2009)

“The surprise of who or what might be around the corner, it’s what keeps us going. It is hope. Such foresight of the future, without the ability to change anything….what a curse.”

Eighteen year-old Emma Gershmann, meets Jacob Bau while she is working at Krakow University as a librarian. The two almost immediately strike-up a conversation, which is unusual for Emma, a quite young women from an Orthodox Jewish home. But Jacob looks kind and honest, and obviously possesses a lively sense of humor. He is pursuing studies in physics, but his real passion is politics, and he is involved in many activist's groups. He also writes articles about "Germany's unfettered dominance" over its neighbors. Jacob is the son of prominent socialist Maximilian Bau. "Emma was surprised that a student from a wealthy secular family would be interested in her, the daughter of a poor Orthodox baker." However, Jacob never seems to notice the differences in their class status. He is apparently falling in love with this fair-haired blue-eyed Jewess. He asks to court the lovely young woman, and they wed shortly after gaining permission. The couple had only been married for three weeks when the Nazis invade Poland.

Jews were obliged to take part in forced labor almost immediately after the conquest. In November 1939, all Jews 12 years or older were required to wear identifying armbands. All Kraków, synagogues were ordered closed and their relics and valuables turned over to the Nazi authorities. The Kraków Ghetto was formally established in 1941. Fifteen thousand Jews were displaced from their homes and crammed into an area previously inhabited by 3,000 people who used to live in a district consisting of 30 streets, 320 residential buildings, and 3,167 rooms. As a result, one apartment was allocated to every four Jewish families, and many less fortunate lived on the street.

Young leftists, including Jacob Bau, who had undertaken the publication of an underground newsletter, joined forces with other Zionist to form a local branch of the Jewish Fighting Organization and organize resistance in the ghetto, supported by the Polish underground. The group carried out a variety of resistance activities including the bombing of the Cyganeria cafe, a gathering place of Nazi officers.

Jacob disappears soon after the formation of the ghetto, after explaining to Emma that he has a moral obligation to fight their oppressors. She remains behind with her parents as the situation worsens on a daily basis, i.e., poverty, starvation, typhus, homelessness, Nazi violence and random murders. She begins work in a ghetto orphanage where she meets other young activists who work with Jacob. Marta Nederman, one of these people, becomes Emma's close friend and introduces her to other like-minded people.

Jacob has Emma smuggled out of the ghetto and finds a place for her in a small village near Krakow with Krysia Smok, his Catholic aunt by marriage. Krysia is a member of Krakow's social elite, despite her waning years, and is a warm, welcoming woman who loves her nephew by marriage. Emma is given a new name, Anna Lipowski, and a new history. She is now an orphan from Gdansk and a Catholic. Krysia has also taken in a little boy, three year-old Lukasz, the only remaining descendant of Rabbi Iszakowicz, the great rabbi of Lublin. Emma is to pose as the child's older sister and protect him with her life.

Krysia, as a doyenne of Krakow society, believes that the best way to hide from the Nazis is to act normally, right underneath the enemies noses. Therefore she invites a small group to a dinner party, including Nazis, Polish sympathizers, and the charismatic Kommandant Georg Richwalder, second in command to Nazi Governor-General of Poland, Hans Frank. Emma/Anna is terrified, but Krysia reassures her, coaches her for her role, and makes the young woman a beautiful dress for the occasion. Richwalder is a striking man. Anna knows she should hate him on sight, but nevertheless is drawn to him. Unfortunately the Kommandant is also drawn to Anna, and he asks her to work as his special assistant in Nazi headquarters. The underground encourages her to take the job in order to spy for them But the situation between the Nazi and the Jewess becomes much more complex. Ann finds herself awake at night, racked by guilt.

I found this novel to be riveting. Not only does it portray Jewish life in Krakow before and during the Holocaust, but it also deals with Jewish guilt...survivor guilt. Written in a first person narrative, Emma/Anna tells her story. She is a very human, yet a flawed character, quite sympathetic and well developed, as are many of the novels other personages. However, she becomes strong and resilient as the plot progresses. The emotional growth she experiences, moving from a sheltered Jewish girl to a more worldly professional woman, working for both a Nazi Kommandant, in the belly of the beast, and also for the resistance, is part of what makes this book so special. As for Kommandant Richwalder, he frequently comes across as a sympathetic figure, and the reader, just like Anna, must continually bear in mind that the man is a Nazi, who perpetrates, although from afar, the worst of war crimes. "The Kommandant considers himself a gentleman, a man of music, art and culture. In his twisted way of thinking, service to the Reich is something noble and patriotic, and the Jewish question is an ugliness to be tolerated from afar. He has sequestered himself in Wawel (Castle), ruling his dominion from a great height, shielding himself from the killing. From where he sits the ghetto is just a neighborhood where Jews are forced to live." Right! He only has to sign a piece of paper to end millions of lives, he doesn't need to shoot Jewish children, add gas to the chambers, or stoke the crematorium fires.

I so enjoyed, The Kommandants Girl, (if one can enjoy, a book like this), that I am reading the sequel The Diplomat's Wife already.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 76 reviews

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"The Diplomat's Wife"

(Reviewed by Jana Perskie MAR 20, 2009)

"You were right about Soviet operatives compromising British intelligence. We've been desperately trying to figure out who they are and stop them. We recently came into possession of at least a partial list, but it's coded and no one has been able to break it."

Although Pam Jenoff's The Diplomat's Wife is a sequel to her novel The Kommandant's Girl, and can be read as a stand alone, I recommend that you read the books in order for optimal enjoyment - if one can "enjoy" books about the Holocaust.

It is 1945 and the Nazis have been defeated. Marta Nederman, survivor of the Krakow Ghetto, was a member of the Polish resistance and played an important role in the first book. The novel opens with Marta, half dead from torture, exposure and lack of food, in a Gestapo prison at Dacheau. Perhaps she has been there months or years, she doesn't know as she has lost all sense of time. When the concentration camp is liberated, she is found by American soldier, Paul Mattison. He is to appear again and again in The Diplomat's Wife, as an important character

Marta is quickly moved to a hospital camp run by the Allies in Salzburg. Here some refugees recover, many others die. At the hospital Marta meets nurse Dava, and Rose, a terminally ill patient with an incurable blood disease. Rose and Marta become close friends and Marta learns that if Rose becomes strong enough, she can be moved to England where she would receive better medical attention. She has an aunt in London who obtained a visa for her. But Marta has nowhere to go. She certainly cannot return to Poland. When Rose suddenly dies, Dava manages to have the visa photograph and information doctored for Marta, so she can leave the continent and start a new life in England.

Marta and Paul meet in Paris, (they had also met in Salzburg), before she takes a boat to cross the Channel. The two fall in love and plan to meet in four weeks in London, where they will take a ship to America and marry there. In lieu of an engagement ring, Paul gives Marta his dog tags. Soon afterwards, Paul's troop plane crashes - all the passengers killed. Their whirlwind romance and all their plans for the future are over. And Marta is pregnant.

After all she has been through, Marta retains some of the inner strength and resilience she possessed during the war. She is a survivor. On the boat to England, she had met a kindly British diplomat, Simon Gold. After months in Europe, he is heading back to the Foreign Office. He told Marta that the Soviets liberated most of Eastern Europe and they show little indication that they will keep their word to restore the sovereign leaders and rights to the occupied territories. As the boat was about to dock, Simon left his card with Marta, and told her to contact him in case she needed anything. Meanwhile, she stays with Delia LeMay, Rose's aunt who warmly welcomes the bedraggled refugee. Not wanting to take advantage of Delia's hospitality, she tries to sort out what she will do now.

Fortuitously and very coincidently, Marta meets Simon again. When he learns of her circumstances, (she doesn't mention her pregnancy), he offers her a job - and shortly afterwards offers her his hand in marriage. She accepts, but, as their marriage progresses, he becomes increasingly cold and distant, although he is still kind to her. Marta and Paul's baby is born, named Rachel, and seemingly Simon believes the infant is his. "The respectability that having a family brought was good for his career."

Serious international problems arise, Communist loyalists have infiltrated British intelligence, and the new mother is asked to take on a dangerous mission in eastern Europe. She is familiar with the area, speaks various eastern European languages and seems perfect for the job. So, Marta returns to Poland, where a Communist takeover is imminent.

Although the plot has many twists and turns, it contains too many coincidences and inconsistencies. Unlike the previous novel, I was unable to "bond" with the characters, who all seem one dimensional and stereotypical, except for Marta. The author's prose is labored at times and the plot and subplots bog down occasionally.

This is the third book I have read by Ms. Jenoff, and her writing is consistently uneven, although her storylines are often compelling. Flawed as the novel is, I do recommend reading it...but only if you can borrow it. It is not worth purchasing.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 41 reviews


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About the Author:

Pam JenoffPam Jenoff was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England.

Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.

Following her work at the Pentagon, Jenoff moved to the State Department. In 1996 she was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. It was during this period that Pam developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. Working on matters such as preservation of Auschwitz and the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, Jenoff developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community.

Having left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Jenoff is now employed as an attorney in Philadelphia. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014