The Girl from the Train by Irma Joubert is unlike most historical fiction books I normally read. The beginning of the story is set close to the end of WWII in Poland, and progresses over about 15 years and into South Africa. Because this isn’t normally my first choice of setting & time period, I honestly wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. However, once I pressed through the first quarter of the book & familiarized myself with the authors style of writing I was pleasantly surprised how much the story pulled me in.
Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Aushwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks.
As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They intend to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.
Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her in. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.
But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.
Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.
This novel was originally published in South Africa in Afrikaans in 2013. Because of this, I feel like the original story was probably a bit more lyrical than it’s English translation. It took some time for me to catch on to the writing style, and I had a hard time pronouncing some of the names and words (still not sure I got it right). However, I was able to adjust and push past that and dive into the beautiful story of Gretl and Jakob. I enjoyed the span of time the story takes, most of the novels I’ve read haven’t spanned 15 years. Because of this, readers are able to grow up with Gretl and we feel her emotions deeply. The Girl on the Train is an interesting mixture of romance, intense connections, and history. At times it’s a very deep read and I had to concentrate to connect, but the overall story is worth the effort. Stick with it until the end, you’ll be glad you did.