“She thought he was lost forever. Now she will stop at nothing to find him”
- Book: The Orphan’s Mother
- Location: Germany, Poland
- Author: Marion Kummerow
Whether, like myself, you read it first, or you choose to wait until you have finished the story, there is a ‘Letter from Marion’ found in the final acknowledgements, which you really do need to read. It tells how this book is in part based on the true story of a child whose experiences the author found out about whilst visiting the Friedland transit Camp Museum, at the former inner-German border near Gottingen, where she had gone to gain research material for an altogether different book, Endless Ordeal; although only the general concept is factual, with everything else being fictionally woven around the basic premise of a storyline idea.
Given the many WWII stories I have read over the past months, and just when I truly thought that there couldn’t be many more unique storylines out there, a book like this comes along, with perhaps the most heart-wrenching premise of them all. What happens when a mother, fleeing from liberators who mean them nothing but harm, is forced against her will to abandon her youngest child in what was once part of their homeland, but which has now, as war is nearing its conclusion, become land not only behind enemy lines, but also behind the Iron Curtain?
Emma, her husband Herbert and their two young children, Sophie 7 and Jacob 4, are amongst the many thousands of Germans living alongside the predominantly Polish population, in the Lodz area of Poland. Herbert is away fighting with the German forces against the advancing Russian war machine, although there has been no news of him for some time now and Emma secretly fears the worst. Whilst the Germans consider the Poles to be their inferiors in all ways and discourage any inter-racial mixing, unless it as employer and employee, the two communities have lived relatively peacefully, side-by-side, for many years. Emma has the added advantage that as well as her native German, she can get by relatively well speaking either Polish or Russian, although the children are German through and through. The German community have heard terrible things about the treatment they can expect to receive at the hands of the victorious Russian ‘liberators’.
Nearby in Posen, Irena and her husband Luka, a nurse and doctor respectively, although working at separate hospitals, are Catholic Polish, childless, and have reasons more than most to hate the German SS. Like most of their fellow countrymen, they are convinced that Russian forces will be their salvation and are only too pleased to see the hated German troops retreating towards their own border, although they are distraught when chaos ensues and all the Polish patients are literally thrown out of the hospital, to make way for sick German citizens and injured troops.
As part of a small group, Emma decides that taking her children and making her way back into Germany, then throwing herself on the mercy of the occupying Allied troops, is a far more palatable option than being taken and abused, or even worse, tortured and killed, by the Russians. Their trek begins in the depths of winter and is fated right from the very start, with just about anything that could go wrong, doing so. Jacob is taken seriously ill with a fever and bronchitis and his condition deteriorates rapidly in the terrible weather conditions and near starvation they must endure. The trek makes it to Posen and a refugee camp, where help is forthcoming, and Emma is given permission to take Jacob to the hospital, where amid the chaos of the retreating Germans, she is forced to hand him over at the doors and places him in the care of a nurse, called Irena, who will become a pivotal person in Jacob’s life, when the Russian advance happens more quickly than anticipated and is so much more vile and evil than anyone could have imagined.
The separation from Jacob is almost more than Emma can bear, although Jacob himself has the resilience of youth on his side and after a difficult period of re-adjustment, learns to accept and thrive in his new environment. His adoptive parents do everything they can to return him to his birth mother, although after a gap of more than seven years they have all but given up hope and are convinced that they will now legitimately be able to call Jacob their son from here on out. They are therefore mortified when contact is made with them by the Red Cross, who are still attempting to reunite displaced family members from across the world. With his formative years long forgotten, and now considering himself to be more Polish than German, Jacob rails against the upheaval about to be unleashed upon him again, but to little avail. Eventually resigning himself to his fate, he aims to make both his German and Polish parents proud of him and who he has become, although it will be 1989, with the lifting of the Iron Curtain, before Jacob will be able to fully reconcile his past with his present and embrace his multi-cultural childhood.
If that sounds like just a bit too much information, believe me, those are only the very bare bones of a story which tugged at the heart strings, like nothing I have read for some while and which led me on an ‘armchair journey’ which was always challenging and never comfortable, which is exactly as it should have been.
Rich in both character and location detail, this well-structured, atmospheric and highly textured, multi-layered storyline, is compassionately and seamlessly narrated in alternating, well signposted chapters, by two families on separate sides of the Iron Curtain, so close and yet so far apart. The writing is evocative, poignant, fluent and well-paced, with several unexpectedly intense and emotional moments, which are perceptive, intuitive, often raw and passionate, yet profoundly touching, highlighting both the fragility and resilience of the human mind, whilst uncovering the long-term and unseen effects the trauma of grief and loss can have. The story explores the lengths a parent will go to and the sacrifices they will make, to keep their child safe from harm and the gut-wrenching feelings of failure when they are unable to protect them as they feel they should.
The characters are well developed, complex and authentic to their place in time, although that made them not always easy to relate to, or invest in. Circumstances meant that everyone was searching for a sense of belonging and closure, on what had been a tumultuous period in all their lives, which made them compelling and emotionally vulnerable, frail yet with an amazing inner strength and tenacity to rebuild their shattered hopes and dreams.
What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This story definitely had the power to evoke so many feelings, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor the next, so I can only recommend that you read The Orphan’s Mother for yourself and see where your journey leads you!