Set in Berlin, New York, and Havana, this ambitious debut novel spans 70-plus years as two girls tell their gripping stories in alternating chapters.
We meet Hannah Rosenthal in 1939 Berlin. A lively 11-year-old, she likes to roam the city with her best friend, Leo. But the Nazis—Leo and Hannah call them the Ogres—are closing in, forcing Jewish families like the Rosenthals to flee. Anna Rosen, also 11, lives in contemporary New York City with her mother, who has become increasingly despondent since the death of her husband, Anna’s father, on 9/11. His life was shrouded in mystery, and Anna is desperate to know more about him. Back in Germany, the Rosenthals set sail on the SS St. Louis, bound for Havana. The (real-life) St. Louis carries 937 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees, whom the Cuban government has promised to take in. But the Cubans renege, allowing only 28 people to come ashore. Those remaining are forced to return to Europe, where many perish. Hannah’s father is among those turned away, but she and her mother, Alma, are allowed to emigrate. Havana, though, never feels like home; Alma, in particular, finds the heat—as well as the political climate—oppressive. Eventually, the Hannah and Anna narratives intersect with both characters getting at least some of what they long for. The parts of the book set in Berlin and aboard the St. Louis are powerful and affecting; the Cuban-born author (who hints the novel is based on his own family history) is particularly good at showing the despair of German Jews like Alma, who considered themselves profoundly German. By contrast, the Cuban scenes seem a little flat and drawn out, and the ending—with Hannah now an old woman—is unexpectedly maudlin.
Still, this is a mostly well-told tale that sheds light on a sorrowful piece of Holocaust history.