Han­nah and Emil

Belin­da Castles
  • Review
By – November 5, 2014

How did a spir­it­ed young Jew­ish English­woman and a Ger­man World War I hero meet, fall in love, and over­come the trau­ma of 1930s Europe and the World War II years? Belin­da Cas­tles based her char­ac­ter-rich sto­ry, Han­nah and Emil, on the larg­er events in her own grand­par­ents’ lives. This well-writ­ten and poignant nov­el cap­tures the sel­dom-told sto­ry of dis­placed per­sons in a dark­en­ing and fright­ful pre-World War II world. 

Emil Beck­er is the poor son of a trade union­ist study­ing to become an engi­neer in Duis­burg, Ger­many. He serves brave­ly in the dev­as­tat­ing trench war­fare of World War I. He returns to a Ger­many in tur­moil, and phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly scarred by all the suf­fer­ing he expe­ri­enced. As var­i­ous polit­i­cal fac­tions try to gain footholds, the ear­ly Nazis use intimida­tion, bul­ly­ing, and mur­der to gain pow­er. Emil is even­tu­al­ly forced from his homeland. 

Han­nah Jacob is an intel­li­gent, brave, inde­pen­dent woman whose dreams, tal­ents, and prin­ci­ples shape her social and po­litical activism. She becomes an inter­preter, trans­la­tor, and writer and meets the refugee Emil through her work. These two ide­al­ists are fre­quent­ly uproot­ed and tossed into con­tin­u­al hard­ships. They find work man­ag­ing a youth hos­tel in a Britain that is unpre­pared for war and where Emil’s ene­my alien” sta­tus puts them in per­il. He is even­tu­al­ly expelled from Eng­land, interred in a brutish camp, and then shipped off to Aus­tralia on a hor­rid voy­age with oth­er for­eign­ers, refugees, and many Nazi sym­pa­thiz­ers. He spends the war years in the Hay and Tatu­ra Aus­tralian camps with the per­sis­tent and resource­ful Han­nah always near­by, cham­pi­oning and pro­tect­ing him. 

The book is writ­ten in alter­nat­ing Han­nah and Emil chap­ters that are based on Hannah’s jour­nals. The detailed anx­i­eties, resilience, and day-to-day sur­vival of the char­ac­ters add depth and under­stand­ing to Han­nah and Emil’s emo­tions and relationship. 

Many inter­est­ing com­pli­ca­tions relat­ing to a mys­te­ri­ous suit­case of strange objects, fel­low refugees, lost fam­i­lies, and Hitler Youth pos­ing as boy scouts at the hos­tel sup­ple­ment this com­pelling sto­ry as the read­er delves into the sto­ry of Han­nah and Emil.

Relat­ed content:

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions