No, I haven’t misspelt the title, nor have I confused the author with someone else. I stumbled upon this book while searching for another one (not The Girl on the Train). The reasons I guess this book isn’t known more widely is it was translated into English from Afrikaans in 2015; and the publishers’ bid to piggyback on the success of The Girl on the Train by changing the original title – Tussen Stasies – backfired.
The author, South African Irma Joubert, was a History teacher for 35 years before retiring and deciding to write full time. She has 11 books to her credit, and The Girl from the Train is the second book in an unrelated trilogy that spans the years from the 1930s to the 1970s. All her novels have historical themes which are very well explored, and as a South African born in 1947 and having lived through the country’s years of strife and flux, she is in a unique position of being able to offer a first-person perspective on a lot of it. This book offers a glimpse into one of history’s lesser known after-effects of WW2.
Gretl Schmidt is the titular girl from the train. We meet her just as the seven-year-old and her sister have jumped off the said train, a train carrying Jewish prisoners bound for Auschwitz in the latter half of 1944. A train that still has her mother and grandmother on board. A train that never reaches its destination because it gets accidentally blown up by members of the Polish Resistance minutes after Gretl jumps off. Gretl’s sister dies soon after, having contracted tuberculosis which she succumbs to after the arduous journey, and through a series of events Gretl ends up under the care of the person who blew up the train in the first place – Jakob Kowalski, a 21-year-old member of the Polish Resistance.
Jakob brings Gretl to his family farmstead, renaming her Gretz in the Polish fashion to protect her identity as a German Jew. The family, though reluctant at first, allows her to stay. Gretz spends her time helping around the farmstead and being tutored by Jakob until he leaves to fight the Nazis during the liberation of Warsaw. During this time, Gretz has gained the confidence and the linguistic ability to move around the village by herself, and discovers two things – the existence of Catholicism as a religion (Germany being majorly Protestant) and a school for children run by nuns of the Catholic Church. Having a natural aptitude towards learning, she takes to the school like a duck to water, and excels at the lessons.
Joubert brings about the interplay of religion and different faiths in a remarkable manner. Although never fully elaborated on, Gretl’s background is not fully Jewish. Her mother’s mother is Jewish, but her father is a Protestant German and she has been baptized as such. Owing to the Nuremberg Law created by the Nazis, they are all classified as Jews (except for the father, who is shown to be a soldier and has been killed in action) and are deported. Before this, religion is never an issue of conflict for Gretl. She attends both the Protestant Mass with her mother, and prays at the Synagogue with her grandmother. For her, it’s just a different way of reaching out to the same God. With this worldview, it is easy for her to accept Catholicism as just another way of doing the same thing, and she readily adapts to it as Gretz Kowalski.
Jakob, meanwhile, is fighting a losing battle against the Nazis in Warsaw. Help promised by the Soviets never arrives (part of their plan to have the Polish Resistance wiped out by the Germans to make it easier for them to control the country later), and materiel drops by the other Allies are few and far between. He is shot during the closing days of the battle, and gets brought back to his farmstead in a near-comatose manner. For Gretz, Jakob is the only person she has a tangible connection with, and she voluntarily nurses him back to health after school. Jakob, for his part, is extremely touched by the girl’s devotion, which only serves to acerbate the fact that he is responsible for blowing the train up.
With the war ended and Poland now under Communist rule, farms are being collectivized, and it is getting harder to sustain the entire family. Ordered by his family to return Gretz to Germany, Jakob has no choice but to comply. He has no idea whether any of her family still survives, or what he is going to do if they are not, but he sets off with her. On the way, he comes across a newspaper article on a South African group looking to adopt German children to give them a better life in South Africa, and makes a spur of the moment decision to ensure Gretz is one of the children. The South Africans, being a Protestant nation, have their own guidelines on the children they prefer – between 6 to 13 years of age, of proven Protestant background, and no Jewish ancestry.
As a result, Gretz Kowalski becomes Gretl Schmidt once again. In her favour are the only things she has had with her since escaping the train – a photograph of her father in the German uniform, and a certificate confirming her baptism as Gretl Schmidt in the German Protestant Church. Once again, Gretl has to adapt to a new way of living and presenting herself, and has to hide and deny the Jewish part of her. The one drawback is her age, but she has an audience with one of the South African delegates and charms them enough to get selected. Jakob and Gretl part ways here; Jakob back to Poland, and Gretl on a ship that will take her and 82 other children to South Africa to their new families.
Once in South Africa, Gretl gets adopted by Kate and Bernard Neethling, he of Afrikaans descent and she the daughter of an Englishman settled in South Africa after the Boer War. Gretl now becomes Magrieta (Gretjie) Neethling, the daughter of a staunch Afrikaans family and her final identity. She assimilates into South African society, becoming a model student, protectively looked after by her elder brother (the Neethlings’ biological son) Kobus, the apple of her adoptive parents’ eye, and doted on by her British grandfather. But in all this, she has one dark secret she knows she can never reveal to her new family – her Jewish ancestry.
The incident described here is a real one, with the then Prime Minister himself adopting one of the German children. The reasoning behind this action by the South African government was equal parts altruism and eugenics – wanting to help the defeated Germans with whom a lot of them sympathized and bolster the ‘pure’ Afrikaans population at the same time. One of the most infamous of the children was General Lothar Neethling – the second-in-command of the South African Police during the Apartheid era. The original plan of selecting and bringing over 10,000 German children failed due to lack of funds, and only 83 children made the final journey. The adoptive parents too, were extensively screened so that only nationalist South Africans would have the opportunity to raise these children.
The story then fast forwards to 1956. Jakob works in a factory in Communist Poland, and chafes at the Soviet chains. There are rumblings around the country, with people showing discontent openly against their Russian masters. He still thinks often of Gretl, but has had no news of her since she moved to South Africa. He meets a Hungarian woman named Mischka, but never gets the chance to develop the relationship as he gets caught up in the protests against the Soviets, and is forced to flee the country. After being on the move for close to two years, he is finally recruited by a South African mining company and reaches Gretjie’s country.
The Gretjie Neethling of 1958 is a college student of 20, a brilliant scholar with a flair for languages, and aspirations of working with a major newspaper as a translator or an interpreter. Her world is that of studies, language lessons, her parents, her grandfather and the boys she sometimes dates. The one vestige that remains of her former life is regular nightmares of fire that she cannot seem to shake off no matter what. It is into this world of hers that Jakob is suddenly reintroduced after he reaches South Africa and tracks her down. The reunion is awkward at first, specially for Jakob, as he still thinks of Gretjie as the scrawny child he left on the stairs of the German orphanage. But as they rediscover each other, they regain the old comfort they had with each other. Catching each other up on the lost years, they both realise that Gretjie still wears the mask she put on as a child, and it is affecting her even now.
Jakob pushes Gretjie to reveal everything to her parents, but her fear of being abandoned for not being ‘pure Aryan’ overrides her desire for disclosure. To make matters more complicated, first Jakob and then Gretjie fall in love with each other. Jakob resists, at first feeling repulsed with himself for feeling an attraction towards someone he first met as a child, but both come to the same conclusion that the difference in their ages is a minor factor compared to the affection and security they feel only with each other. Her dilemma of revealing her Jewish roots is somewhat lessened when he grandfather reveals that his wife, Kate’s mother, was Jewish too. Strengthened by this piece of information and by Jakob’s support, Gretjie decides to reveal her secret to her parents.
Her parents do find out, but not in the way she intends, and neither is their reaction to it what she has anticipated. Instead of revulsion or anger, they accept her history, declaring nothing can change their love for her. The catharsis of the revelation and the acceptance results in a Gretjie shriven of her past demons, more connected than ever with her family, and confident enough to finally face Jakob and admit her love for him. In turn, Jakob finally finds the courage to reveal the one secret gnawing at him since he met her – that he is the one responsible for the train blowing up.
The final act in the story revolves around Gretjie’s parents finding out and protesting her and Jakob’s love on the twin grounds of the age difference between them and him not being a Protestant, and finally agreeing when they see the strength of their bond with each other. Throughout the story, Joubert gives us a subtle commentary on religion being a man-made construct; that if looked at closely, all religions have more in common than what sets them apart; that you don’t need religion to understand morality; and that love is a force stronger than any, giving people the power to accept and support those they love regardless of religious doctrines.
As a writer with a history background, Irma brings the words alive with the depth of her research. The original title of the book – Tussen Stasies – resonates more with the journey of Gretl to Gretz to Gretjie and of final acceptance, and in my opinion should have been the English title too. The English translation of Tussen Stasies? Between Stations.