Reviewed by Emma Crowley
For eighteen-year-old Ilse life is unrecognizable. A year ago, she wasn’t forced to wear a star on her clothes. A year ago, her parents were alive, not yet killed by their own countrymen. A year ago, she had her freedom.
Now, at the break of dawn, she steps off the cattle train into a Minsk ghetto. This is Ilse’s new home: trapped by barbed wire, surrounded by SS guards she is forbidden to look in the eye, with no choice but to trade the last of her belongings for scraps of food. Sentenced for the crime of simply existing, she doesn’t expect to live past the summer.
Yet the prisoners in the ghetto refuse to give up––the underground resistance is plotting their escape. Ilse’s first act of defiance is smuggling from the munitions factory, slipping bullets into the lining of her pockets.
But this is just the beginning… When Ilse meets Wilhem, a local SS administrative officer, she never dreams that her greatest rebellion will be falling for him. Wilhem promises that she will survive, even if the cost is his life. But in a world of such danger, daring to love is the most dangerous risk of all…
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Girl Who Survived to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Girl Who Survived by Ellie Midwood is based on the true story of forbidden love that develops between, Ilse, a German Jew transported to the Minsk ghetto, and Willy Schultz, a lieutenant in the Luftwaffe. Ellie Midwood has certainly published a great number of books this year and she has become one of my go to authors for WW2 historical fiction. I found this one to be slightly different from the previous offerings I have read by this author as it didn’t focus on one of the dreadful concentration camps created by Hitler rather the Minsk ghetto was the main setting. This was another great read for its hard hitting and its controversial subject matter - How does one fall deeply in love with the very person whom you are supposed to hate the most in life?
Life has never been the same for Ilse and her family since the beginning of the war and onslaught of the persecution of the Jews for a crime they had no idea they had committed. In 1943 her family are living in Frankfurt having relocated from their home town where her father’s grocery store had been destroyed. All Ilse craves is a normal life, one where their last rights and dignity had not been taken away leaving each Jew to wear a star on their sleeve as a form of identification. Ilse works in a textile factory and each day her life is a gamble as to whether she makes it to the end or not. One can not comprehend what it must have been like to live in a constant state of fear not knowing what rules could change in an instant and affect you even further.
Her older sister Lily and younger sister Lore, as does Ilse, both feel trapped and that they already have a death sentence hanging over their heads. When men arrive at their flat and a summons is issued simply for being a Jew it does not matter in the slightest that they are German. Their religion dominates over where they were born. The family are transported on the infamous ‘cattle’ trains arriving in Minsk. Their father did not last the journey and they are soon separated from their mother but it’s fortunate enough that the three sisters remain together.
Ilse seemed very together and with it and despite the horrors she witnesses in the ghetto and to be crammed into such horrific conditions she makes the most of the realities of her new life. Ilse and her sisters may have no country to call home or even be classed as citizens but she is a fighter who never gives up. She is a character who knows how to adapt and survive instead of just giving in and lying in wait for death to eventually take her. She clings to any hope that she can that the partisans living in the forests surrounding Minsk will provide a way for escape. Knowing this was a slim possibility I feel is what drove her onwards all the time but I sense she never thought in the most desperate of times with danger, devastation, death and destruction all around her that a ray of light in the form of love would come her way. In my mind she was playing a dangerous game for if the truth were to be discovered death would have been instant. Not to mention the discovery of the role she plays in the resistance/ work of the partisans. This made me feel she was walking a very thin line and one in which she could slip off very easily at any point.
The Germans do not show any kindness to those in the ghetto but Lieutenant Willy Schulz from his first introduction seems different from all the rest. Dare I say it that he actually had a good bone in his body and felt sympathy towards the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto. Given the history of the war as a whole and what the Germans did it’s hard to like a character who has fought for the Germans and continues to work for them in the government buildings in Minsk. But Ellie Midwood made me in a small way like him as a character. Both Ilse and Willy I liked as separate entities but overall their relationship didn’t sit right with me even though love is supposed to conquer all. I wonder given Ilse’s normal life had been cut so cruelly short that she wasn’t able to attend university, go to dances or have a boyfriend did she jump at the first sign of affection but at the same time this new found love which blossomed very quickly afforded her many opportunities she used to better the lives of those around her.
How could romance blossom with so much horror going on in the background? But as Ilse’s becomes a typist for Willy she embeds herself deeper into his life and he hers and it’s like they create this little unique bubble around them which they hope no one will burst. Whilst reading you do question are Willy’s intentions genuine. I kept thinking was there some catch behind all this? The line ‘saving someone’s life is worth dying for’ really struck a chord with me and I felt it really summed up the context of their relationship given what could have happened to them at any time.
After reading this story even though I did feel the love that developed between the pair overall it just didn’t sit right with me. I know if I had been in the same situation, yes I may have taken advantage of the circumstances and used them to my benefit in order to make life somewhat more bearable but I would have done so under false pretences rather than fully give myself over to the other side who had inflicted so much hurt and brutality on the world. This forms a real talking point to the book and I am sure will leave many readers divided over what they would do if the same fate befell them.
The Girl Who Survived is a good read although it is not my favourite by Ellie Midwood so far. I found there was such a focus on the relationship between Ilse and Willy that the pain and terror inflicted on those in the ghetto was more so alluded to rather than described in detail as had been done in previous books. Yes, there was a horrific scene after an annihilation so to speak that will leave your blood run cold but even though it may sound macabre to say even more specific detail of the plight of the German and Soviet Jews could have been added. That’s what really set this author’s previous books apart from all the rest for me is her specific attention to detail that really makes you sit up and take notice, understand and empathise with the characters and it has you totally gripped and deeply invested in their outcome. That said The Girl Who Survived is a very well written and researched story which highlights the story of two people’s lives, their love and their unbreakable bond which strengthens against all the odds in a bid for good to triumph over evil. The ending was a bit of a surprise and I am glad it was different from the norm, although I would have loved to earn a little bit more. The author already has another book coming in just a few short weeks in October, The Girl on the Platform, which is already firmly on my list as one to read.