'When We Were Brave': A new look at treatment of German-Americans in WWII

As the author notes, each character is based on a real person and each is compellingly drawn.

A MAIN character’s journey takes him to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Memorial plaques commemorating German Jews murdered in those two concentration camps dot the Berlin pavement in 2008 (photo credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)
A MAIN character’s journey takes him to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Memorial plaques commemorating German Jews murdered in those two concentration camps dot the Berlin pavement in 2008
(photo credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)
When We Were Brave is a work of historical Holocaust fiction, a genre that evokes much debate.
The “con” camp asks: Why make up tales when so many true accounts need telling? Why play into the hands of Holocaust deniers who would have the world believe the whole thing was fiction?
The “pro” camp argues that historical fiction allows a fuller look at individuals’ motives, feelings and reactions. Infusing imagined dialogue and other details into the narrative makes for a more absorbing story.
I had this debate in mind as I read Karla Jay’s novel, which won a silver medal in the online Reader’s Favorite Awards last August and a New York City Big Book Award in the category of Distinguished Favorites last November.
The plot has three strands that at some points intersect. One strand follows SS officer Wilhelm Falk, who risks everything to escape Germany in hopes of alerting the Americans about the death camps. The second strand focuses on Izaak, a Dutch “Mischling” boy sent to the camps along with his Jewish father and gentile mother. The third strand traces the misfortunes of Herbert Müller, whose family loses its Pennsylvania farm and gets deported as the result of official persecution of German and Japanese American citizens during World War II.
As the author notes, each character is based on a real person and each is compellingly drawn. But it was Müller’s story I found most interesting because the topic is seldom explored in American literature or history books.
“During the war, 12,000 German-Americans were arrested as enemy aliens and sent to internment camps around the country, including one on Ellis Island,” Jay explains. “Of those 12,000 detainees, several thousand were repatriated to war-torn Germany, many exchanged for more important Americans who were trapped in Europe when the war broke out. A countless number of those German-Americans lost their lives as they were not safely chaperoned once in enemy territory, and all lost their property and assets. Some chose never to return to the United States. No one received restitution for what they lost.”
Clearly, Jay did not intend to equate the characters’ suffering in any way but rather to show three quite different faces of suffering during that nightmarish period in history – including two that are seldom considered.
 

It’s a bit risky for a female novelist to depict male characters (and vice versa). I wonder if Jay might have chosen to tell the Müller story in the voice of Herbert’s wife, Jutta, or to have told a girl’s story instead of Izaak’s. Nevertheless, I felt she did a creditable job getting into the psyches of the three male personalities of her making.
One of the most poignant parts of this achingly sad book is Izaak’s persistent optimism that his family’s situation would improve, that the next camp would be better and that his parents would be reunited.
It’s not hard to imagine that so many doomed children were just like Izaak – unable to fathom the horrors that confronted them and only too willing to grasp false straws of hope such as the short-lived “beautification” of the Terezín (Theresienstadt) transit camp orchestrated to pull the wool over the eyes of three foreign observers — two from the Red Cross — who visited on June 23, 1944 to investigate rumors of Nazi atrocities.
We know that these observers were duly duped into believing that children like Izaak were adequately housed, fed and educated. We know that only about 4,000 of the 87,000 souls who passed through Terezín survived. But seeing this true episode through the eyes of fictitious Izaak brings it to life in excruciatingly cruel detail.
“The nice houses in town sat empty, and the new stores, cafes, and library were closed. All the hard work the people put in to build a pretty place didn’t seem to matter now,” Jay writes about the cold reality to which Izaak awoke after the visitors had gone.
Later, in Auschwitz, when a smiling man in a clean uniform takes notice of Izaak’s artistic talent and says, “My name is Uncle Josef. I’m a doctor,” the reader wants to snatch the boy away before he finds out that “Uncle Josef” is the very personification of evil.
A couple of inaccurate details crept into the narrative, such as the description of bourekas as a “traditional Jewish dish” familiar to European Holocaust survivors. “Kreplach” may have been a better choice.
Overwhelmingly, however, Jay’s novel hits the right note – albeit a terribly tragic note – in portraying the Holocaust through the experiences of three different types of victims. Without settling the bigger questions raised by Holocaust fiction, When We Were Brave is a good read and a good source of information about historical aspects other writers have overlooked.
WHEN WE WERE BRAVE
By Karla M. Jay
Book Circle Press
395 pages; $15