The past decade has seen an abundance of novels dealing with World War II, many of which have achieved best-seller status, like "All the Light We Cannot See," "The Nightingale" and "The Book Thief." What's newer are the novels — and non-fiction — that focus on women's roles during the war as participants in resistance work, whether in the field or on the home front. Novelists have unearthed new information about women's wartime activities and turned their research into compelling stories that acknowledge heroism beyond the battlefield.
"The Girl from the Channel Islands" by Jenny Lecoat is based on a remarkable true story. The "girl" in the title is Hedwig Bercu, a 21-year-old woman who escaped Vienna during the Anschluss and located to Jersey, one of the British Channel Islands. The group of islands, closer to France than to England, was the only part of Great Britain occupied by Nazi forces.
Hedy is Jewish and essentially trapped and without work once Nazi forces occupy Jersey in 1940. She has a trusted friend in Anton, a Jewish baker also from Austria, and his Gentile girlfriend, who tells her about a job needed by the island's German administration: a translator, one who speaks both English and German. Hedy applies for the job and is hired despite her Jewish heritage. (The only person who knows of that heritage is the person who hired her). Taking great risks, Hedy uses her job to steal petrol coupons, which she gives to a local doctor for his visits to treat island residents since gas is severely rationed on the island. She regards her theft as a kind of penance for taking money from the Germans, what she terms "my own personal mitzvah."
Hedy is suspected of anti-Nazi activities after some gas coupons are dropped nearby when she is leaving work. They are hers, of course, but a German lieutenant, Kurt Neumann, takes the fall for her and is imprisoned for a brief time. They had met previously, and he became infatuated with her and she, reluctantly, with him. He did not know she was Jewish. After his release, their romance began, and she learned he had been conscripted and did not adhere to Nazi ideology. When he learned she was Jewish, he was devastated she had so little trust in him, but they were able eventually to mend their relationship.
Romance is a significant part of the novel, but just as important is the friendship that develops between Hedy and Anton's girlfriend, Dorothea, who Hedy feels is shallow and flighty. For it's Dorothea who hides Hedy in her home once the Nazis begin their search for any remaining Jews on the island. After the war, Dorothea was recognized for her courage and heroism as "Righteous Among Nations" at Yad Vashem in Israel.
The Channel Islands were largely ignored by the Allies during the war. While there were no battles on the islands, the residents suffered terrible privations and endured frequent brutalities during the five-year occupation. Survival was key. The author was born in Jersey, and her family members were part of local resistance efforts; some were deported and died in the concentration camps.
In 1945, Kurt, the German officer, becomes a POW in Britain; what happens afterward provides a satisfying conclusion to an already dramatic story.
Madeline Matson is the reference and adult programming librarian at the Missouri River Regional Library.