It’s 1944 Poland. Gretl, a six-year-old German girl, is on an open-car train with her older sister, mother, and grandmother. She doesn’t understand where the train is going, but the reader does – Auschwitz. Gretl’s mother is half-Jewish, and even though she was married to a now-dead SS officer, the family has too much Jewish blood to be exempt from the Final Solution.
The train cars are not locked; Gretl’s sister jumps first. And then Gretl jumps and tumbles down the embankment. She’s to meet up with her sister, and then together they’ll find their mother and grandmother, who also plan to jump. Except the train reaches a bridge – and the bridge has been wired with a bomb. The target was an expected German troop train; no one in the guerilla Polish Home Army unit expected the train headed the other way, to Auschwitz.
Gretl hears the explosions but doesn’t make the connection to the train. She eventually finds her sister, who after years in the ghetto is extremely sick, and dying from tuberculosis. The are found by Polish partisans and taken to a farm family. The teenaged boy who set the bomb, Jakob Kowalski, takes Gretle to his family, where she will live for the next four years. She has to keep quiet about her Jewish blood; Jakob’s family likes Jews even less than Germans.
Based on actual accounts, The Girl from the Train by Irma Joubert is the story of Gretl and Jakob. It moves from the family farm, to the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis (which the Russian Red Army, across the Vistula River from Warsaw, sat out), to the program that took German war orphans to South Africa for adoption, and to the first decade of Poland under Soviet communist rule.
Despite the 13 years difference in their ages, the little German girl and the Polish teenager forge a strong and tender relationship. It’s one that will span decades and continents, experience separation and reunion, and eventually have to battle through religious and ethnic intolerance.
Joubert is the author of two novels in Afrikaans, Ver Wink die Suidenkruis and Tolbos, and two other novels in English, Child of the River and The Crooked Path. A graduate of the University of Pretoria, she taught history for 35 years. She lives in South Africa.
The Girl from the Train tells a little-known story – what life was like in rural Poland during World War II and its aftermath – and combines it with other little-known stories, like the German war orphans and South Africa’s role in World War II. It slows a bit in the early South African middle, but it becomes a fascinating, engrossing story of a relationship that survives despite everything thrown against it.
Top photograph by Tom Barrett via Unsplash. Used with permission.