Block, in her debut novel, tells the desperate tale of a couple attempting to survive the horrors of Nazi occupation.
In September 1939, Aron Matuszienski is captured on the battlefield after the German army launches a surprise invasion of Poland and routs the country’s defense forces. Aron is doubly terrified of his captors, for he’s not just a Polish soldier—he’s also a Jew, and he keeps that fact a secret. It’s an unlikely talent that saves him: Aron is a skilled shoemaker, and despite their sneering disdain for the conquered, the “Germans respected trades, real craftsmen.” For a few months, he’s sufficiently fed and housed in Germany and treated better than other Polish prisoners. During this time, he thinks back to Gitel, the girl he loved before the war, whose memory he can’t erase. His cover is soon blown, though, when he accidentally says a prayer in Hebrew and a Polish rival quickly exposes his true identity. They ship him back to Poland for slave labor, but when he arrives, he’s reunited with Gitel. Against all reason, and in the ruins of their former lives, they embark on a love affair. When their marriage results in a daughter, it forces them to make terrible choices; preserving their family is no longer optional, but the cost of survival may be more than they’re willing to pay. Although the novel begins in 1939, several early chapters jump back to earlier periods in Aron’s and Gitel’s lives; their story continues through the war and into its immediate aftermath. Block writes in a sharp, lurching prose that captures the awful poetry of forced marches, clacking train cars (“The train bucked and strained on the tracks, the wheels buried in four feet of snow groaned to a halt”), and orders barked in many languages. She illustrates not only the desolate, selfish calamity of the war, but also the hard, unsentimental love that takes root in such a setting. The novel perhaps relies a bit too much on history to determine its shape—the ending, for example, tapers rather than terminates—but overall, it provides an affecting look at a truly terrible situation.
An engaging story of love in the worst of circumstances.