The rarely told story of the Nazi genocide of the Romani people unfolds through the eyes of a heavily fictionalized “film slave,” a Romani girl forced into service as an extra in a Leni Riefenstahl film.
Lilo is 15 when the Nazis cart her family off to a concentration camp. She’d assumed they were safe—settled, urban, skilled Sinti, unlike Roma who traveled in caravans and were easier targets of bigotry. But there’s no safety in Buchenwald or Maxglan, where her mother is the subject of sadistic procedures and her father vanishes in the night. In a stroke of luck, she’s taken to be a forced extra, a film slave in the backdrop of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Tiefland. Along with the other Romani imprisoned by Riefenstahl, Lilo fights to stay alive in circumstances less extreme than the camps but still horrific. Filmmaking details provide a unique flavor in a tragic story that’s otherwise all too familiar. Amid death and torment, Lilo encounters unexpectedly frequent sparks of human decency. Conveyed in at-times overly expository prose, Lilo’s story is fiction laid upon the life of actual Romani Holocaust survivor Anna Blach. Context is provided by a deeply problematic author’s note, which dedicates more than four pages to Riefenstahl but only three sentences to the modern Romani, mentioning neither the modern reality of anti-Romani bigotry nor the simple fact that “Gypsy” (used through the note as synonymous with “Romani”) is now considered pejorative and should be avoided.
In the end, the touching story of survival carries readers over the occasional infelicities. (Historical fiction. 12-16)