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November 29, 2014 | 7th Kislev 5775

Those Who Save Us

By Jenna Blum

 

Those Who Save Us
By Jenna Blum
Harcourt Books

Study Guide by Marlene Myerson, R.J.E.

 

About the Author
Jenna Blum has been writing professionally since she was sixteen, when her short story, “The Legacy of Frank Finklestein,” won first prize in Seventeen Magazine’s National Fiction Contest. Since then, Blum’s short stories and nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary and commercial periodicals. Those Who Save Us is her debut novel. 

Blum lives in Boston, where she teaches master novel workshops for Grub Street Writers. She earned her BA from Kenyon College and lived for five years in Minneapolis, where she did much of the research for Those Who Save Us, including interviewing Holocaust survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

Of German and Jewish descent, Blum is German on her mother’s side and Jewish on her father’s side. Her investigation of her background included four trips to Germany with her mother and played a significant role in inspiring her novel.

About the Novel
Those Who Save Us strives to enrich the reader’s understanding of what life was like in Germany during World War ll, especially for women. What makes this work different from many other books about the time period is its point of view—from the perspective of a German woman.

The narrative goes back and forth between the story of Anna Schlemmer, a young woman living in the city of Weimar during World War ll, and her daughter Trudy, living in Minneapolis in the late 1990s. For fifty years, Anna has refused to talk about her life in Germany. Trudy was only three when she and her mother met an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy's sole evidence of the past is an old photograph, a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy and a Nazi officer. Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally learns the truth about her mother's life.

Questions to Discuss

  1. Those Who Save Us has been called a war story, a mother-daughter story, a love story and a story of survival.  How would you classify this novel?

  2. Blum describes herself as having a “schizophrenic heritage.”  In what ways have her German and her Jewish roots given her a unique perspective?  

  3. Discuss the title of the novel, Those Who Save Us.  In what ways do the characters save each other? Who saves whom? 

  4. What do you learn about Anna’s character through her relationship with Max?

  5. Discuss Anna’s relationship with the Obersturmführer. Does their relationship transcend the sexual?  How does Anna’s affair affect her self-image, her relationship with Trudy and her ability to experience love?

  6. The great sage Hillel said, “Do not judge another until you are in that one’s place” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). Using this quote, discuss Anna and the Obersturmführer. Was this connection built on fear and cowardice or courage and determination? What would you say in response to the women of Weimar who referred to Anna as an “SS whore”? 

  7. Blum suggests that the emotional heart of her novel lies in the difficult relationship between Anna and Trudy. In what ways are Trudy and Anna typical of mothers and daughters everywhere? How did Anna’s secrets impact their relationship? What parallels, if any, can you draw between your own relationship with your mother and that of Anna and Trudy?

  8. Why do you think Rainer and Anna were drawn to each other?  In the end, what pulled them apart?  

  9. Anna maintains her silence by insisting that “the past is dead, and better it remain so.” Why do you think Anna consistently refused to talk about her past? 

  10. At the end of the novel, the fate of the characters is uncertain, as Trudy considers “this sad and peaceful vacuum between one part of life ending and another coming to take its place.” Why do you think the author chose to end the book in this way? What do you imagine will happen to Anna and Trudy?


Resources
To learn more about the author and her book, go to her website www.jennablum.com.

Non-Fiction

Ursula Hegi's Tearing The Silence: On Being German in America, examines the guilt German-Americans often feel about their heritage and helps to inform the character of Trudy in Those Who Save Us.

More non-fiction accounts of "Nazikinder," children of high-ranking Nazis, are featured in My Father's Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders—An Intimate History of Damage and Denial, by Stephen and Norbert Lebert.

For those seeking an intimate glimpse into the mind of one of history's most infamous Nazis, read Commandant of Auschwitz, by Rudolf Hoess. His equivocations, justifications and denials of his murderous work provide insight into Nazi Germany.

William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is considered by many scholars to be a definitive work of World War II from a German reference point.

The Nazi Officer's Wife, by Edith Haan Beer, is a true account of a Jewish woman who survived the war as the wife of a Nazi officer; Allison Owings' Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich, is a study of the lives of civilian German women during the war.

Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, serves as an analysis of how "ordinary" Germans aided and abetted the perpetration of the Holocaust.

Fania Fenelon's Playing for Time, is an autobiographical account of women who survived Auschwitz by playing in the camp's orchestra.

Fiction

The Kommandant's Mistress, by Dr. Sherri Szeman. A novel with an intriguing structure, this book tells the story of a Jewish woman who becomes the mistress of a camp commandant from the points of view of both the Jewish woman and the Nazi man.

Schindler's List, by Thomas Keneally. A terse, dignified narrative about the free-wheeling black marketer and his frantic efforts to save the Jews in his hometown.

Tales of the Master Race, by Marcie Hershman. In a series of related short stories, this book explores the complicity and experiences of German civilians in one town during the war.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, by Louise Murphy, is a brilliant retelling of the traditional fairy tale that casts two Jewish children as the brother and sister who try to survive in the woods.

Stones From The River, by Ursula Hegi. This novel provides an excellent account of domestic life in Germany during the war.

A Kiss From Maddalena, by Christopher Castellani. A beautiful portrait of life on the home front during the war and set in Italy.

Marlene Myerson, RJE, is the Union for Reform Judaism regional educator for the Canadian Council of Reform Judaism and the former president of the National Association of Temple Educators.

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