The Win­ter Orphans

  • Review
By – October 31, 2022

In her sec­ond nov­el, The Win­ter Orphans, author Kristin Beck ele­gant­ly shines a light on the lit­tle-known women in WWII who hid one hun­dred Jew­ish orphans, some­times ille­gal­ly shut­tling them to safe­ty through the Swiss Alps and Pyre­nees Moun­tains. Heav­i­ly researched yet acces­si­ble, and inspired in no small part by Wal­ter Reade’s Chil­dren of La Hille: Elud­ing Nazi Cap­ture dur­ing World War II, this cap­ti­vat­ing book fol­lows three main char­ac­ters, two of whom are based on real people.

Charm­less and lack­ing the abil­i­ty to read peo­ple, Rӧs­li Nӓf, the expe­ri­enced direc­trice of the Chateau de la Hille orphan­age run by the Red Cross in South­ern France, has an unwa­ver­ing con­vic­tion that she must save the Jew­ish chil­dren in her care from their fate under the Vichy gov­ern­ment. Beck demon­strates that Rӧsli’s flaws — her unsen­ti­men­tal pen­chant for order, stub­born nature, and mat­ter-of-fact demeanor — are also some of her great­est strengths. Then there is the younger and some­times impul­sive Ann-Marie Piguet, who grew up in the Swiss forests and who, like Rӧs­li, pos­sess­es a strong desire to do the right thing in the face of evil. Beck writes about these women unapolo­get­i­cal­ly, demon­strat­ing their strength and courage even and espe­cial­ly in moments of challenge.

The teenage Ella Rosen­thal, mean­while, is not based on a par­tic­u­lar Jew­ish orphan but is rather a fic­tion­al­ized com­pos­ite of the many chil­dren who, after Kristal­nacht in Novem­ber of 1938, were trans­port­ed from Ger­many and Aus­tria through Bel­gium and even­tu­al­ly to Chateau de la Hille. Beck’s Ella chap­ters focus on the character’s choice — whether she should attempt a dan­ger­ous escape or remain at Chateau de la Hille with her much younger sis­ter, whom their par­ents entrust­ed to her care pri­or to being murdered.

The Win­ter Orphans is more hope­ful than most Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. This is due in part to the unlike­ly and remark­able suc­cess of the true Chateau de la Hille sto­ry, which has work­ers hid­ing teenagers in a secret cham­ber (Zweibelkeller, or onion cel­lar”) and coor­di­nat­ing dar­ing escapes to safer Swiss and Span­ish ter­ri­to­ry. Yet hope also emerges from the romance that devel­ops between Ella and Isaak, anoth­er teenage orphan. Their rela­tion­ship helps Ella dream again after the trau­ma of los­ing her fam­i­ly and for­mer life; for despite the con­stant ter­ror and uncer­tain­ty, Ella and Isaak sup­port each oth­er, promis­ing sta­bil­i­ty as they dare to con­sid­er a future togeth­er. While one ought to be wary of roman­ti­ciz­ing the Holo­caust and the expe­ri­ences of sur­vivors, the theme of hope­ful­ness in Beck’s nov­el­could, and per­haps should, pro­voke read­ers to con­sid­er the role of hope in their own lives.

A mov­ing and thought­ful work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, The Win­ter Orphans leaps to show­case women’s roles in the war and resis­tance. Beck deserves high praise for telling the orphans’ sto­ry, and for paint­ing hero­ic yet obscured women in vivid color.

Lind­sey Bod­ner is a writer and an edu­ca­tion foun­da­tion direc­tor. She lives in Man­hat­tan with her family.

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