I wish this book didn't exist.
What I mean is that I wish Rose Under Fire, a brutally honest book about a young American pilot imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, didn't demand to be written.
But unfortunately, it did.
Rose Moyer Justice is an 18-year-old American Air Transport Auxiliary pilot ferrying planes for the British government. Although World War II is drawing to a close, during a semi-secret flight she is captured by the Germans. For six long and painful months, Rose is incarcerated with thousands of other female political prisoners and seventy-four Polish victims of Nazi human experimentation who are nicknamed "The Rabbits."
|Women working in Ravensbruck.|
Photo courtesy YadVashem
Six million Jews dying in concentration camps is a number difficult to comprehend But like seeing thousands of shoes at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., I'll remember individual stories because Wein used amazing characterization and deep point of view to show each one.
In the concentration camp Rose becomes a part of a "family;" a small group of prisoners bonded together by their desperate hope to survive. Lisette Romilly is nicknamed the "lagermutter" and acts as the mother to the group. A French musician, professor, and novelist, her character is based on Irène Némirovsky who was killed in Auschwitz. Lisette is arrested after her Jewish Polish husband is killed and she attempts to return to France. Rose realizes that Lisette deals with the loss of her sons and husband by mothering her small prison flock. Lisette moderates sibling-like squabbles in her family and fiercely protects and provides for them--by getting small scraps of bread, obtaining contraband medicine, and finding places for the rabbits to hide.
Róża Czajkowska is fourteen when Lisette meets her. A fierce Polish member of the Gray Banks, an underground paramilitary association. she was arrested delivering explosives to the underground. Lisette begins mothering her when they are imprisoned together in the Lublin castle. When they reach Ravensbrück, Róża is one of the first to be operated on. This is from the mock interview with Lisette:
"The theory was that the camp doctors would simulate battle wounds on their legs to find cures for German soldiers injured on the Eastern front. My companions had muscle, nerve and bone cut from their legs, or had gangrene cultured in purpose-made wounds in their healthy flesh. Several of our transport died after the first round of experiments in the autumn of 1942."
Lisette's mission is to get Róża out of Germany so the world will see the atrocities performed there. Rose and Róża are joined by their shared name, Rose's poetry, and the challenge to "tell the world."
|Scars on a woman's leg after medical experimentation.|
Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem
|Anna Engel, is one of the harsh women's S.S. guards assigned to Rose's unit. (Spoiler alert: She plays an important secondary role in Code Name Verity, a companion volume to this book). When she discovers that Rose is American, a unique relationship develops between the two women. Anna attended college in the United States and misses American food. In exchange for recipes and cigarettes, Rose procures calcium supplements for Róża. While listening to the book I kept wondering about Anna's (and the other guards) motivations to treat their prisoners with such unfeeling brutality. Wein does a good job of answering that question through glimpses into Anna's backstory. Wein's portrayal of this sympathetic antagonist is very believable. In fact, Wein told me that she thought Anna was the best character she has ever created. |
I was worried that Rose Under Fire would end too soon; that I wouldn't know what happened to Rose or Róża. But their bravery against overwhelming odds built on a friendship in which they challenge each other to overcome their fears, provides a perfect ending to a powerful book.
I rarely give a five star rating to any book on Goodreads. But this winner of the 2014 Schenider Family Book Award is at least a six in my book. Wein's commitment to historical accuracy combined with a well-plotted story using beautiful language makes this a book I will remember for a long time. In my first email to Elizabeth I confessed I had a hard time saying I enjoyed her book because it was painfully wonderful. She wrote back, "Funny you should say 'enjoying' might not be the best word - when it first came out I'd say to people, "I hope you enjoy it - well, you won't enjoy it, but I hope you appreciate it!" THANK YOU for appreciating it. When I was writing Rose, my Jewish aunt and uncle (my father was Jewish) pointed out to me that if our grandparents hadn't left Europe in the early 20th century, we'd all be dead including my children. It's unbelievable how far-reaching that shadow is. We are the lucky ones."
Roza and her fellow prisoners urge Rose to "Tell the world!" In Rose Under Fire Wein has accomplished exactly that.
Scroll through Elizabeth Wein's website and you'll find many materials which will facilitate classroom discussion. If you want to picture what life was like for Rose, view this You Tube video by chronoshistory:
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This is a book you don't want to miss.