Tag Archives: World War II

Flashback Friday: The Last Days (1998)

The only way to learn from our past is to not repeat it. Sometimes, that requires reliving it, as painful as it sounds.

The 1998 documentary, The Last Days, was released on Netflix back in May. The film follows five Hungarian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. During the last year of World War II, the Jews of Hungary were the last intact Jewish community in Europe. That would quickly change. Within six weeks, hundreds of thousands were deported to Auschwitz. Only a handful would survive. Containing interviews with survivors, a SS doctor, and American soldiers who helped to liberate Dachau, it is powerful and haunting reminder of both the light and the darkness in humanity.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It was riveting, emotional, and a punch to the gut that is absolutely necessary. Hearing about this time in history from the people who lived through this nightmare reminds us all that the Holocaust is not a myth and not strictly relegated to the world of literature. It is an event that happened in the lifetimes of many people who are still alive. While we cannot bring back those who were murdered, we can honor their memory by remembering them, and open our eyes to the negative energy and destruction that hate drags behind it.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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Letters Across the Sea Book Review

War has a way to pulling us apartment, forcing us to see someone else as “the other”. It can also bring us together and remind us of our common humanity.

Letters Across the Sea, by Genevieve Graham, was published earlier this year. In Toronto in the summer of 1933, Hannah Dreyfus and Molly Ryan are best friends. Both the grandchildren of immigrants (Eastern European Jews and Irish Catholic respectively), they are friends in a time in which antisemitism is rising in their hometown. Though Molly only sees her BFF and has a crush on Max, Hannah’s big brother, other people are not so tolerant of their differences. Things come to a boil in August during the Christie Pits riot, forcing Hannah and Molly to go their separate ways.

Six years later, World War II is on the horizon. After years of toiling at any job she could get, Molly has finally gotten her dream job as a journalist. Men from across the country have enlisted. Among them are Max and Molly’s brothers. When the letters from the soldiers start to arrive, Molly must contend with the past and the unspoken truth that has been buried since that night in 1933.

This book is amazing. Graham’s eye for the historical facts while creating a fictional world is top notch. I was fully invested in the story, hoping that Molly and Max would get together while praying that the male characters would come home. It was a history lesson in the best way, learning about this time in Canadian history without feeling like the reader is sitting in a university lecture hall.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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My Name Is Selma: The Remarkable Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter and Ravensbrück Survivor Book Review

The ability to survive a war is due to a combination of both luck and timing.

In 2020, Jewish Holocaust survivor and resistance fighter Selma van de Perre published her memoir. It is entitled My Name Is Selma: The Remarkable Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter and Ravensbrück Survivor. The third of four children, van de Perre’s live was relatively normal until World War II started. In her late teens at the time, fate determined that it was not her time to be rounded up by the Nazis. After her father was summoned to a work camp and her mother and little sister were in hiding before found and sent to Auschwitz, Selma died her hair blonde, lived under an assumed name, and joined the resistance. It seemed that luck was on her side. That is, until 1944 when she was captured and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her Jewish identity remained a secret until after the war, when she finally able to reveal her true self safely.

I wanted to like this book. If I am to be completely honest, it was an infodump. In writing terms, an infodump is where the writer(s) provide the reader with a lot of information without emotion or insight into what the characters are thinking or feeling. Now granted, this is a memoir and not a fiction book. What I was missing was the quickening of my pulse and the uncertainty of the dangerous situations she put herself into.

Do I recommend it? Not really.

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Throwback Thursday: The Exception (2016)

Love has to power to change everything. Hate included.

The 2016 film, The Exception, takes place in Holland during World War II. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is a Nazi officer whose task is to ensure that spies have not found a way into the home of the former German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm (the late Christopher Plummer). Along the way, he falls for housemaid Mieke de Jong (Lily James), who is hiding her Jewish identity in hopes of surviving the war.

This movie would normally be celluloid catnip for me. While the cast is fantastic and at the top of their game, I could not get into it. There is no other explanation other than I was bored. Whatever narrative hook this film possesses, it was lost on me.

Do I recommend it? Not really.

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Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope Book Review

Motherhood is one of the most profound and challenging experiences of a woman’s life. Wartime and the sheer will to survive forces a mother to make decisions that would otherwise not even be considered.

In 2015, Wendy Holden published Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope. The book tells the story of three Jewish women incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. Not knowing the fate of their husbands or their families, Rachel, Anka, and Priska know that being pregnant is a death sentence. They do everything they can to survive, not knowing if they or their babies will not just live, but one day see the light of freedom.

I loved this book. In telling the story of these three women, Holden brings the cold and dangerous reality of this era of history. It is a reminder, in the most in your face way possible, how quickly hate and prejudice can descend into destruction and murder. I felt as if I was in these camps with these women, instead of reading about them generations after the Holocaust happened.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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Daughter of the Reich: A Novel Book Review

Our teenage years are the most confusing and exciting times of our lives. We are torn between the expectations of our families and the excitement of the newness of everything that occurs during that period.

Daughter of the Reich: A Novel, by Louise Fein, was published last year. In World War II era Germany, Hetty Heinrich, whose father is moving up in the ranks of the Nazi party, is everything a daughter was supposed to be. She is respectful of her parents and goes along with the new society that the regime has created. That all changes when she reunites with an old friend, Walter Keller. Walter is Jewish. Despite the risks to both of their lives (and their families by extension), they start to fall for one another. When it becomes clear that the danger is ramping up tenfold, Walter and Hetty have to make a decision about their future.

OMG. This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. It was such a visceral experience to see this world and this time in history through Hetty’s eyes. If nothing else, it was a reminder of how equally powerful love and hate can be. As I got further into the novel, it was not hard to see the parallels between the 1930’s and today.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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The Royal Governess: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth II’s Childhood Book Review

Sometimes, when we are growing up, those who influence us are not our immediate family. It could be a teacher, a coach, or a counselor whose teaches us lessons long after we have grown up.

Wendy Holden‘s 2020 novel, The Royal Governess: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth II’s Childhood, follows Marion Crawford as she worked as the governess for the future Queen Elizabeth II and her late sister, Princess Margaret. Born to a commoner family in Scotland, she was known to the royal family as “Crawfie”. Taking the job at the young age of 22, she spent 16 years of her life raising the next English Queen. While doing so, she tried to give her charges a sense of normalcy and a glimpse of what life was like outside the palace walls. As time passes, she watches the young girls grow into young women, King Edward III abdicate the thrown, and World War II forever change the fate of the western world.

This book is fantastic. I wish I had had a teacher like Marion when I was young. She is caring, compassionate, stern when she needs to be, and able to educate her pupils in a way that goes beyond what can be found in textbooks. I also appreciated that in the novel, Ms. Holden does not judge Wallis Simpson as other works of fiction have. Depending on the material and the perspective, she is either the wicked woman who tempted a king away from his throne or a romantic icon who followed her heart.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

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The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos Book Review

When we think of war, we generally think of men on the battlefield and women keeping the home front going. But the reality is that women have waged war, but not in in the way we perceive it to be.

The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Judy Batalion, was published earlier this year. The book tells the story of a group of young Jewish women who actively fought against the Nazis in the Polish ghettos during World War II. Told in vivid detail using interviews, archival information, and written accounts, the author brings to light an aspect of this era in history that has been overlooked.

This book adds a new layer to the information we have about the Holocaust. I loved that each woman is given her time to shine. We are told that women are weak and emotional. We are incapable of being bold, brave, and courageous. The subjects of this book are the opposite. They know that death is waiting for them at every turn. But they cannot sit back and do nothing. Instead these young women used every tool at their disposal to save as many lives as they can.

I appreciated the epilogue in which the author sketches the lives of the survivors after the war is over. While some settled down into of normal life, others are haunted by those years and what they experienced. They lived with what we now know to be PTSD, creating a shadow that stayed with them years after peace was declared.

Though it is not the heart pounding thriller I thought it would be, it is still a good and a very important read.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

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Exile Music: A Novel Book Review

Childhood should be a time of love, laughter, friendship, and innocence. But for some children, their early years are far from ideal.

Exile Music: A Novel, by Jennifer Steil, was published this month. Growing up in Vienna in the 1930’s, Orly lives a comfortable life. Her parents are professional musicians and her older brother is well regarded by the neighborhood. When she is not with her family, Orly spends her free time with her best friend, Anneliese. In 1938, her world is shattered by the Nazi invasion and the racial laws that quickly begin to restrict Jewish life.

After her brother flees to Switzerland, Orly and her parents are among the lucky few who find refuge in Bolivia. Settling in La Paz, they are strangers in a strange land. While Orly and her father make due, her mother is not quite ready to give up what they lost. She is also keeping a secret that if got out, could cause trouble. Decades later, when Anneliese comes back into her life, Orly has to make a choice. Does she stay in Bolivia with her family or return to Europe and pick up where she and Anneliese left off?

I really enjoyed reading this book. Orly is relatable character. Her voice and growth throughout the novel felt organic and true to the various stages of life that we go through as we grow up. I also appreciated the undercurrent of the LGBTQ storyline. Instead of feeling forced to make the book stand out, Steil includes in a way that gives her main character a layer and an extra oomph that is not often seen in this genre and this period in history.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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Where Hands Touch Movie Review

When we think of the Holocaust, we think of the six millions Jews that were murdered. While that fact is undeniable, other groups were also targeted for persecution and murder. Among those were Rhineland Bastards. One parent was White and German, the other was of African descent.

In the 2018 film, Where Hands Touch, fifteen year old Lena (Amandla Stenberg) is one of these children. Her White mother, Kerstin (Abbie Cornish), is a single mother. Lena’s father is no longer in the picture. Kerstin is doing her best to protect both of her children from the racial laws imposed on the country. While her son is considered to be a “good German”, her daughter has a target on her back. When Lena meets and falls for Lutz (George McKay), the son of a Nazi official and a member of Hitler Youth, things get even more complicated.

I enjoyed this movie. It was a story that I was aware of in the general sense, but I was fuzzy on the details. The one thing that stuck out to me was the character arcs. If nothing else, it shows how dangerous this mentality is, specifically when a nation sets on a path of destruction of their own citizens that is based on identity.

Do I recommend it? Yes

Where Hands Touch is available for streaming on The Roku Channel.

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