Book Review Thursday: Motherland

MotherlandI read a lot of books on the Holocaust (and have reviewed them here).  This book, although set in the same era, is told from a different perspective – that of a German family who apparently wasn’t aware of the atrocities, or chose to look the other way.  Either way, there were consequences.

The book was inspired by letters found in an attic wall, written by author Maria Hummel’s grandparents, as well as stories her father had related to her about that period of history.  The fictionalized story centers around the Kappus family.  Frank Kappus is a reconstructive surgeon who has been conscripted to work in Nazi hospitals.  Just a few months before the story begins, his beloved wife had died after giving birth to their third son.  Two months later he married a young woman, Liesl, whom he had met years before at her job as a teacher.

After Frank is sent away, Liesl takes on the task of mothering an infant as well as two other sons not her own.  Her new role as mother to three boys is a difficult one, made all the more difficult when Frank must leave.  As the remaining parent she must see that the children are protected and fed – not an easy task given the dangerous times and dwindling food supplies.  After one of the boys begins experiencing a mental breakdown, another layer of difficulty is added to an already stressful and challenging time.  Liesl has to fight to keep him out of Hadamar, a mental institution for children.

The story alternates between the two worlds the family has been forced into – Liesl and the boys and Frank fulfilling his medical military service, each having its own challenges.  The plot has several twists and turns, at times hopeful, but tragedy strikes just before their town is captured near the end of the war.  Thereafter, the family must face the consequences of “looking the other way,” as did many other German families.  It begs the question as to whether they knew – or if they knew, when did they know it.  And if they knew, why didn’t they do something about it?

In reality, the author’s family seemed to have been oblivious to the horrors of the Holocaust, her father claiming he learned of it at an exhibition several years after the war.  She realized after reading through her grandmother’s letters that she had her own challenges which commanded her constant attention.  Instead of asking “when did they know” she began to ask “what did they love”, “what did they fear.”

Maria Hummel found it difficult to write the book from this perspective, given what we now know was happening at the time.  She related in her acknowledgments:

It was painful to write from this perspective.  It was painful to keep the Holocaust offscreen, to mention Jews only a few times in the book, and then go to dinner with my Jewish friends and family.  I used to sit across from them and think, There is a lake of blood between us, but right now, in this chapter I am writing, I am pretending it doesn’t exist.

If nothing else, the book is thought-provoking because the reader sees another side of the conflict brought on by a madman’s thirst for the annihilation of an entire race of people.  I can certainly understand why the book was so difficult to write.

Rating:  ★★★-½

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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