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.