I often find myself drawn to historical writing to learn about how ordinary people performed in extraordinary circumstances. No era interests me more than World War II, and several new books captured my attention with their consuming narratives.
“The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive” by Philippe Sands traces the true story of Otto von Wachter, an Austrian lawyer who joined the Nazis, rose to the position of governor of Galicia in Poland, and escaped capture after the war.
Sands threads the historical record with his conversations and correspondence with Otto’s son Horst, a septuagenarian determined to clear his father’s name. Yes, Otto was a Nazi, but Horst is convinced he was not responsible for the atrocities ascribed to him in an indictment as a war criminal implicated in the deaths of more than 100,000 Poles.
Sands exhaustively researches documents and travels to Austria, Poland, the U.S. and Italy to uncover who Wachter really was. Most fascinating was the correspondence between Otto and his wife, Charlotte, an avowed Nazi who played a significant role in Otto’s post-war years on the run.
The Ratline refers to the system designed to shepherd Nazis out of Europe to South America, where many lived long lives.
The book is an outgrowth of a 10-part BBC podcast called The Ratline, which includes conversations between Sands and Horst, who states at the beginning he wants to know what his father did and did not do. Sands, an international lawyer, presented compelling evidence for Horst and the reader to consider.
“The Invisible Woman” by Erika Robuck is a historical novel full of intrigue and heart-pounding moments based on the life of Virginia Hall, an American who led Resistance efforts in France.
The book starts in spring 1944, when Virginia lands in France and finds her way to the rural countryside to help resistance fighters train in preparation for D-Day. She disguises herself as an old woman, although she is only 37, and relies on the French for help in traveling because her accent would give her away. Her disguise is more believable because she has a prosthetic leg, the result of a shooting accident in peacetime Turkey while she was in the diplomatic corps.
Through flashbacks, the reader learns this is Virginia’s second mission in France; the first ended with a harrowing escape over the Pyrenees and a stint in a Spanish prison. Virginia is haunted by guilt over leaving her French comrades and she is determined to stay till the end this time.
Over the course of the book, she settles in three locations to aid small groups of guerillas with training and airdrops of supplies. Her last stop is Chambon, a village in the mountains that hides Jewish children under the nose of a rehabilitation hospital for Nazis, one of whom hunted Virginia during her previous mission.
Finally, “The Girl From the Channel Islands” by Jenny Lecoat is a historical novel set on Jersey featuring Hedy, a 20-year-old Jewish woman who fled Austria ahead of the Nazis. When the Channel Islands are overtaken by Germany, Hedy again is endangered.
In order to avoid deportation, she takes a job as a translator for the Nazis, and she meets Kurt, a Nazi officer who increasingly questions his superiors’ motives and actions. They fall in love, but their future is jeopardized when Kurt realizes Hedy lied about her heritage. After they make their way back together, they defy the odds time and again to keep Hedy safe and their future secure.