Reviewed: “Interrogating Ellie” by Julian Gray

Interrogating EllieInterrogating Ellie is Julian Gray’s fictionalized account of the real life of Ellie Maurer – who becomes Ellie Bauer for the book, a British woman who lived in Austria for the duration of World War II. Gray combines Ellie’s real life and the people she knew, based on her interrogation files, with other colorful characters who are drawn and adapted from other stories of Austria during the 1940s.

The fictionalization of reality in Interrogating Ellie does not make the reality of horrors in World War II any less.

Ellie Bauer is a woman who can’t be classified, literally and figuratively. Growing up without her mother and not having any idea who her father was, she comes to adulthood searching for a family. This would seem to be why she agrees to move from Jersey to Austria with her Austrian husband and their daughter just as the Nazis come to power. To say it is a mistake would be putting it lightly.

But this is an area we don’t often read about in World War II – average Austrian families and how they dealt with national pride warring with National Socialism. And Gray handles it beautifully. Ellie goes through the things during her time with the Bauer family that many women have gone through, but it’s made more daunting by the Nazis.

When she’s cut off from her family, she’s forced to survive the war on her own in Austria. She alternates between following the rules – registering with the work and housing authorities – and breaking the rules – hosting clandestine resistance meetings while not being registered to work. It’s about survival for Ellie, nothing else. She has no firm political alliances and even as she learns more about what the swastika and the men behind it mean, she carries on for herself most of all.

And it doesn’t end after the war.

Ellie is forced to fight her way out of Austria to get home to some sort of life in England. She has to fight Austrians, Americans, and British for the right to keep searching for her place in the world. And she never really finds it, even when she wins – or what passes for winning.

Gray’s book on World War II isn’t cloak and dagger resistance movements and it isn’t focused on the concentration camps. It’s more like reality, reality that probably was for a lot of women in that time and in that place. That is what makes it beautiful.

Interrogating Ellie is available for purchase now.

I received a copy of Interrogating Ellie through NetGalley and cloiff books in exchange for an honest & original review.

Reviewed: “The Exiles Return” by Elisabeth de Waal

The Exiles ReturnFor me, as a lover of all things historical, wars are fascinating. As a lover of fiction, fiction based on reality, it’s the aftermath of the war that’s as fascinating as anything else.

This made the posthumous publication of Elisabeth de Waal’s THE EXILES RETURN the perfect choice for me. The blurb on the back cover even proclaimed the book to be similar to one of the most moving books I’ve read about the effects of war on the average man; EVERY MAN DIES ALONE by Hans Fallada. I was hooked by the blurb, I suppose you could say.

THE EXILES RETURN is the story of a handful of Austrians who return to their native land fifteen or so years after the end of the Second World War. One, Professor Kuno Adler, is a Jewish scientist who managed to escape to America before the Nazis caught him. Another is Theophil Kanakis, from a family of Austrian Greeks, who found incredible wealth in America before returning. Then there is Marie-Theres (or Resi as the Austrians insist on calling her, often to her dismay) who is the daughter of an Austrian-born princess who moved to America and delivered her daughter there.

Of the three, I found Adler the most compelling. He left behind a wife and daughters in America simply because he didn’t feel at home there. He wanted to be at home, in Austria. The place of his birth called to him and he couldn’t ignore the call. It took real bravery for him to give it all up a second time, not knowing where he could begin again. While the other characters in the story are more interconnected, even the non-exiles, Adler sort of kept to the periphery of it all. That made sense, given how he seemed the sort of man who would always be on the periphery of anything – always there but not always noticed.

Kanakis was the most pathetic, in a depressing sort of way. He was desperate to be what his immigrant family wasn’t while he grew up in Austria. He wanted to be rich, he wanted to have pretty friends, he wanted to know royalty, he wanted to be fawned over, he wanted to be adored. Money bought him most of those things, even royalty in the form of an utterly despicable young prince who everyone called Bimbo – an apt nickname if ever there was one, but Kanakis found out quickly that money is transitory and the things it buys don’t always stay as long as one might like.

Marie-Theres is the character I relate to most. She didn’t end up in Austria by choice. She’d have been perfectly happy to stay home with her books and records and vaguely ambiguous relationship with a college boy named Budd. With a social butterfly princess for a mother, that never would have worked out for her. She was packed off to her aunts where, speaking just enough German to get by, she got tragically caught up in the pull of a society still pulling itself together after being shattered by war. She never really stood a chance.

THE EXILES RETURN wasn’t published in de Waal’s lifetime. According the biography in the book and the introduction by Edmund de Waal, she wrote two novels in German and three in English. I, for one, hope they all end up published. This one drew me in and I have no doubt the others will.

(I received a copy of THE EXILES RETURN through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. This review will be cross-posted there.)

Book #2: “The Nazi Officer’s Wife” – by Edith Hahn Beer

Edith Hahn Beer was an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times who now has a remarkable story to tell.

She was a twentysomething law student in Vienna who happened to be born to parents who happened to have been born to Jewish parents of their own. Her life was easy and privileged at first; a nice home, good family, advanced schooling. Then the Nazis came to power in Germany.

Adolf Hitler long believed that Austria was rightfully Germany’s to own and govern and it wasn’t long before he took over the country, due in large part to the willingness of many Austrians to follow along.

Edith Hahn and her small circle of friends hoped and believed, in part because it was all they had, that it would all be over soon and the damage to Austria, Vienna, the Jewish people, and themselves would be minimal.

They were wrong.

The Nazi Officer’s Wife is one woman’s story about how she survived a work camp and, when sent back to Vienna before being ordered to Poland for ‘resettlement’, dared to live directly underneath the gaze of the Gestapo and pretend to be everything that she wasn’t.

In the end, she found herself married to a Nazi officer, Werner Vetter.

That she was able to keep up the pretenses of hiding so openly among the Nazis is a story like no other I’ve ever read. As I read her story, I found myself cheering for some characters and rooting against others, then I realized that these people were real – not characters. Their story is reality, stark and honest.

No matter what you think before you start reading this book, you’ll think slightly differently when you finish it.