Code Name Verity was one of my most devastating reads of 2014 (or, maybe it was 2013), reducing me to sobs. It took me a while to gird my loins for another Elizabeth Wein WW2 read. In honor of Memorial Day, I decided that I would dive in.
Rose Under Fire is a companion novel, not a sequel, and tells the story of Rose Justice, American pilot and Ravensbruck concentration camp survivor. Told in flashback, there is never any question about Rose's survival. Frankly, given the emotional devastation in the wake of the ending of Code Name Verity, I was thankful for this.
The difficulty of reading a book - or writing one, I would imagine - set in a concentration camp is that the mind becomes overwhelmed by the horrors, and it is difficult to sustain that knife edge of emotion for long periods of time. Remaining emotionally engaged with characters who are at such enormous risk is, itself, a risk. Wein takes some of the edge off that risk by letting the reader know that Rose does survive the camp, albeit not without scars.
"I think it is the most terrible thing that was done to me—that I have become so indifferent about the dead. I would be able to do a human anatomy course without ever feeling faint, do surgery with steady hands, clean up anything and not be sick and never mind the blood. Maybe I could be a doctor. A real one—go to medical school— Maybe I could! I could be a poet and a doctor—like William Carlos Williams! A new direction—a new world—I could help fix things now."
More than two decades ago, I read a historical treatment of the holocaust - a book called "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," by Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen is a historian who wrote the book based on his Ph.D. research. Not a comforting story, although a controversial one, his point was that the myth that ordinary Germans were unaware of what was going on in the camps was just that - a myth.
But, that isn't why I brought up that book here. I bring it up because I was a grown-ass woman when I read it, a lawyer, and, I believed, a person who was able to handle just about anything that a book could throw at me. Yet there was a chapter in that book that seems, in retrospect, to have been endless, that described the actual horrors that occurred in one of the camps in clinical detail and that nearly made me vomit. I felt like I was being physically assaulted reading it. It changed everything for me because finally, Goldhagen was able to breakthrough the wall that I built around the Holocaust and get me to see what it was like. Not that I had been a Holocaust denier, of course, but when our minds are confronted horror, the normal human response is to recoil and redefine. We distance ourselves so we don't have to see the reality of it. When I saw the reality, I felt like a great abyss opened beneath me. I remember sitting on my couch, sobbing, reading and wanting to stop but feeling like I needed to finish because it was imperative that this feeling that I had be honored, even though it was terrible. I felt like a witness to something that needs to never be forgotten.
If I were a high school history teacher, these two books would be the center of a unit about WW2. Wein makes the history accessible to young adults, without insulting their intelligence or sugarcoating it, in a way that is compelling and readable. I cared about her characters.
In the afterword to the book, she says:
"What I’d really like to pound into the reader’s head, if there’s any lesson to be learned here, is that I didn’t make up Ravensbrück. I didn’t make up anything about Ravensbrück. Often, I have had to fill in the blanks—when the toilets stopped working, how thick the mattresses were, how you might improvise a sanitary pad. The little things. The terrible and the unbelievable, the gas chambers and the medical experiments and the twenty-five lashes, propping up the dead to make the roll call count come out right, the filth and the dog bites and the curl hunts and the administration and politics of bowls, I did not make up. It was real. It really happened to 150,000 women. And that is just one camp."
She succeeded, for me. Well done. Let us remember.