Every time I read a book about a person who survived the Holocaust, I am amazed at the bravery of those involved in the survival of the hidden Jews. I wonder if I would've been so courageous, risking my own life to save those oppressed; I wonder at why sometimes rather ordinary people do extraordinary things without blinking. All of these thoughts occurred to me once more when I sat down to read Gertruda's Oath, the story of a Catholic nanny who not only saved her Jewish charge, she fulfilled his dying mother's wish that the boy be raised in Palestine.
Gertruda's Oath is the story of Gertruda Babilinska, a Polish Catholic who is hired by the Stolowitzky family to take care of their only son, Michael, right before the Germans invade Poland. The Stolowitzkys are very wealthy, and Gertruda comes to love young Michael as if he were her own. When the Germans come into Poland, however, Michael's father is in Paris on business and is unable to return to his family or bring them to him. Desperate, Gertruda, Michael, and Lydia, the mother, flee their home for the relative security of Vilna, but their chauffeur underhandedly takes all of their belongings and money, so the trio is forced into a small apartment with basically nothing. Lydia becomes sick and passes away, but before she does, she charges Gertruda with the life of her son, and Gertruda promises to be as a mother to Michael. As Gertruda fights to hide Michael's Jewish background, she must make life-changing sacrifices and rely on Fate to keep them both alive throughout the War.
Gertruda's Oath is also the tale of Karl Rink, an SS man married to a Jewish woman, who must make the gut-wrenching decision to send his only child to Palestine as he realizes what loyalty to the Nazi regime is going to cost him. Karl's story links to Michael's, and Oren moves back and forth between the two. Interspersed are also the stories of the local Jewish doctor and Michael's father, Jacob, who initially survives the German occupation of Paris with the help of a waitress named Anna. The story is also bookended with the grown Michael searching for his father's very large fortune known to have been left in a Swiss bank, making me want to turn the pages quickly to find out if restitution is ever made.
This is a well-written story, and the author obviously worked closely with Michael Stolowitzky in telling it. I learned about the illegal immigration to Palestine of many Jews after the war ended, something I had not known wasn't allowed by the British. There were times, however, while reading that I felt the author's style of writing was more suited to a younger audience than to an adult's; it felt a bit choppy occasionally and some of the dialogue seemed stilted. But this is not a child's tale, really; there is violence, loss, and deep emotion that might not be suitable for a younger audience. And this book does indeed deserve a wide audience, and Gertruda's love and sacrifices deserve to be told and celebrated. Definitely a riveting tale that gives true meaning to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of great evil.