What would you have done if you were an ordinary German citizen during World War II? Would you have risked your life to hide some Jews? Or turned them in? Would you have joined the Resistance? Or would you have just done whatever you had to do to survive? These are some of the questions posed in Jenna Blum's first novel, Those Who Save Us.
Anna Brandt is a cold, silent woman who never speaks of the past. In her view, the past is dead and it should be left that way. Her daughter Trudy has always known that her mother's American husband, Jack, isn't her real father. She knows that Jack married Anna at the end of the war and brought her and Trudy back to Minnesota with him. But who was her father? And why won't her mother tell her anything? The only clue Trudy has to her past is a photograph from when she was only a few years old. She is sitting on her mother's lap and an SS officer is standing behind them. Was the SS officer Trudy's father?
Trudy is now a professor of German History and one of her Jewish colleagues is involved in a project recording the experiences of Holocaust survivors. Perhaps out of guilt over her own German heritage, or perhaps because she has so many unanswered questions, Trudy decidese to undertake her own project that researches the point of view of ordinary Germans during the war. She felt their unique perspective was going to be lost if it wasn't documented and she wanted to know. What did the people do? Did they know what was happening to the Jews? Did they feel guilty or do anything to stop it?
The book alternates between present day and WWII Germany. So, as we read about Trudy's efforts to interview local Germans about their war experiences, we are also learning about Anna's own experiences during the war. And so, the readers are much better informed about her mother's past than Trudy is herself. Ultimately, during one of her chance interviews, Trudy learns part of her mother's story, and who her father was.