Six year old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Auschwitz when she and her sister are told to jump by her grandmother and mother. Miraculously the two survive the jump, but Gretl's older sister is gravely ill and soon dies. Gretl, really too young to understand what has been happening to her family, believes that her grandmother and mother plan to jump also and waits in the bushes for them to arrive. Only after hearing a large explosion and seeing the nearby railroad bridge burn, does she realize that she will never see her family again.
Through a rapid series of events, Gretl ends up in the care of Jakob Kowalski, a young Polish freedom fighter, and his family. Gretl, a German by birth, is told to speak only Polish and to never reveal that her grandmother was Jewish. The secrets she and Jakob share keep her safe during the war, but after it ends, Jakob returns Gretl to Germany because German orphans are being given a chance to be adopted by South Africans. Jakob knows the hardships of Poland under the new Communist rule and he wants Gretl in a safe place. As he returns the young girl , now just 10 years old, to the Germany of her birth, Jakob tells her that she must keep even more secrets. She must not reveal her years in Poland or that she has been passing as a Catholic, as the South Africans seeking children only want Protestant orphans.
This book is just wonderful. Gretl's growth from a homeless child into a young adult who deeply loves her adoptive parents, but who needs to face the truth of her past will tear at your heart. To think that hundreds or thousands of young war survivors went on to forge new lives under similar circumstances makes her journey all the more poignant. Jakob's part in the story is equally striking. First, there is the background of the Polish freedom fighters, and the fear that Russia will replace Germany as the power which controls Poland. Then later through Jakob's eyes we get a realistic look into those Communist-run years, and how a simple event of speaking out made him an enemy of the state. Frankly, the South African setting and its conflicts between Protestant Afrikaans and English settlers was totally new to me. I had never heard of the movement to adopt German orphans, and I found the plan fascinating.
The book covers 15 years of Gretl's life, but it flows smoothly from one time period and one setting to another. Irma Jourbert was a history teacher for over 35 years and then turned to writing. Her knowledge of and interest in history certainly shows in this novel which has been translated from the Dutch. If her other books are as interesting as THE GIRL FROM THE TRAIN, I hope they make the transition to American publishers. I received a copy of this novel from NetGalley for my honest opinion.