If you are wedded to cookery programmes, then the phrase “three ways” may be a death knell to this post. This is three books which show three ways, and in two instances people, who outwitted the Nazi Reich.
The Cut-Out Girl, worthy winner of the Costa Prize 2019, is the extraordinary story of a young Jewish girl who survived in Amsterdam, hiding in plain sight, from the German Occupiers and how after the end of the war, she was lost, and nearly forgotten, by the family who saved her.
Her remarkable survival and this book is the result of a search by the grandson of the foster family, who looked for her, found her and reconnected the broken threads.
This is neither a comfortable, nor a totally neutral story. Lien was not treated very well by her new family, and one incident alone is enough to explain why she might never have wanted to see them again; but that is not the reason for the severed relationship – that came from within the family.
This is a story of persistence, misunderstandings, courage and love and Bart van Es has written hauntingly about this strange, life changing event for his grandparents, his own father and Lien de Jong-Spiero herself.
The second book is rather different. This is a novel for a start, but it is based on the true story of one of Italy’s heroic youths. Guiseppe Lella, Pino for short, is about fifteen at the outbreak of the Second World War. He lives with his parents, a younger brother and a sister, in Milan. Other members of his family live there also and they are principally engaged in the making and designing of leather travel bags, handbags and purses.
At the beginning of the book, Pino is concerned with girls, jazz and the cinema. But the bombing of Milan changes his life and the life of the whole family. He and his brother are sent into the mountains to an Alpine school run by a priest, Father Re. Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the strange, searing and ambivalent story of a youth who encounters first hand the terrible evil that is Fascism, and subsequently the evils of Nazism.
While in the mountains, he is secretly trained to guide Jewish families and escaping pilots who have landed in Italy across the Alps into Switzerland. This is not without danger, not least from the elements. But also, obviously from German patrols, and also Italian brigands who latch on to the advantages of the situation to bully money and food, in the name of the Partisans (though not for them in fact), from the local population.
But just before he turns eighteen, Pino is summoned back to Milan by his parents and forced to enrol in the German army. This is because young Italian men that are drafted into the army are sent immediately to the Russian front, if they “volunteer” they are enrolled in less combative branches of the force, and stay behind enemy lines. That is the theory, anyway.
Reluctant, but obedient, Pino joins up. But is then slightly injured in a bombing raid and ends up, by a curious accident of fate, as the driver to a German officer, Hans Leyer, one of the shadow men and one of the most powerful Germans in Italy towards the end of the war.
Pino’s story is extraordinary and baffling, and it is not until many years after the war that it comes to light. Mark Sullivan was at an exceedingly low ebb when at a dinner party in Montana, USA he heard a modest and sketchy outline of the tale. He followed this up with visits to Italy to meet Pino, now a man in his mid to late eighties and the novel is based on his several prolonged visits and interviews with Pino.
Pino Lella had never spoken at length to anyone about the course of his war, what he did and who he did it with and until Sullivan turned up, that is probably how it would have remained, unmentioned until he died with his memories untold.
The third book is by the late Paddy Ashdown and tells the story of a group of people who did everything, except the one thing that might have made a difference, to stop Adolf Hitler and his rise to power and the inevitable consequence of the German rush to war.
Nein, Standing Up to Hitler 1935 – 1944 is the history of a massive failure. Had any of the schemes that are outlined in this well researched book come to fruition then the history of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century might have been very different.
A failure to cooperate, a failure of nerve and several missed opportunities meant that Hitler rose inexorably to power, and just as inexorably took German into war.
All three of these books are a revelation. Each showing what a slender gap there is between what happened and what might have happened. They are all incredibly lively, exciting and devastating in the ways humans deal with danger. It shows too, how depraved and ugly humans can be and how unfeeling.