Warning: contains spoilers.
Every so often, a novel feels so real that the characters seem to be breathing right off the page. Emilia is one of those stories.
The title clearly states what this book is about, but it doesn’t give away the horrors that the protagonist, Emilia Brettenheimer, endures during World War II. Emilia is a young Jewish woman who grew up in Germany, but her family is forced to relocate to a ghetto. She lives with her parents and three brothers, two of whom are considered useful workers in the ghetto.
While living in the ghetto, she thinks her life has surely taken a turn for the worse. Food is hard to come by, at least enough food to thrive. She begins, out of desperation, to give away the family’s hidden gold and then her services, in the sexual sense, to an SS guard named Richer, in exchange for enough food to feed her family.
She becomes pregnant with his child. Just when she is on the brink of wondering what to do, things turn even darker. Her mother, Hannah, and she are carted off to a labor camp in Poland after the unthinkable happens.
We all know the horrors of concentration camps. Emilia’s baby is aborted, and she is put through a harrowing procedure that renders her no longer able to have children. I cannot imagine the physical and emotional pain that would have involved. Being a mother, having my children is one of my greatest blessings. To take that away from a person is to say they are somehow not worthy of being a parent, that they are subhuman and should be allowed to be neutered or spayed like an animal.
The one saving grace poor Emilia has is her new friend, Magda, a red-headed girl about her age who finds something to be grateful for in the midst of hell. Magda explains that an attractive young woman like Emilia could use her looks to get on the good side of the SS guards and get more food. It’s a matter of survival. The game they’re playing has no real winners, for a young woman loses her innocence to get a piece of bread. Some of the guards are no less than bears, the sex nothing less than pure rape.
What Emilia had with Richer was heavenly bliss in comparison.
Things continue to unravel. Emilia’s life spirals downward, for how can she hope to survive this horror, let alone hold to the belief that there is any mercy to be had?
The war ends, but the price of survival is too much to pay. Embittered to the point of hatred for her tormentors, and understandably so, Emilia tries to make her way in this new world.
Yet there are people in Emilia’s life who have been the balm of healing, those who have shown her a better way. Will Emilia, broken and battered from her experiences, choose to hold onto her shattered pieces, or will she manage to rebuild her live, one piece painstakingly at a time, to create the masterpiece of forgiveness, wholeness, and love?
Ellie Midwood’s extensive knowledge of World War II is evident throughout. She writes Emilia’s experiences with gut-wrenching rawness. It hurts to read, but you can’t stop. Perhaps to experience just a small fraction of the pain a Jewish woman would have endured during those years is a testament to us all of the horrors of humanity and one of the lowest points of history for mankind. To think there are things going on like this in the world today is an atrocity. This fictional book raises awareness to a very real evil.
5 out of 5 stars
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