Rating: 4 Stars
Synopsis via Goodreads:
Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses… and then he confesses his darkest secret—he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.
What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all—if Sage even considers his request—is it murder, or justice?
This isn’t a YA novel, and if you follow me in any way, you know that I don’t typically read and review non-YA novels. But I made an exception for this novel because (1) I have not read any of Jodi Picoult’s novels since high school, when I when on a frenzy for everything Jodi Picoult had written, and (2) I am possibly a masochist, because I love reading anything relating to WWII and the holocaust (and no, this is not secluded to Anne Frank, thank you very much) even though I become a blubbering, angry red mess. Every. Time. Without fail.
A little reason as to why: My father is a history buff of the intense kind, and his main area of interest is WWII. Because of this, I grew up in homes filled to the brim with every WWII novel, biography, and anything even remotely relating to his area of interest. When I got to high school and when my father retired from the U.S. Air Force – which included teaching at the Air Force Academy as (you guessed it) a history professor – and ended up teaching JROTC (if you don’t know what this is, please Google it) at my high school, I studied it much more.
So even though I was never his student and I never took JROTC, the main thing he loved to teach on was (of course) WWII and, well, every aerodynamic lesson he could (he was a navigator in B-52’s in the Air Force, so obviously he knows a thing or two about such things), he talked to me about what he was about to or already had lectured on. And I loved hearing about it.
I became really interested in this idea of a country loving Hitler. This man who rose to power seemingly overnight and who was able to capture the love and admiration of a whole country with just a few pretty words? Hell, that’s terrifying. And then, once I had started to learn more and more about the concentration camps, I became curious about the medical experiments done at the camps. It’s sickening, to say the least. (Do NOT look anything even related to this if you do not have a strong stomach and the idea of human experimentation makes you want to curl into a ball and cry. It’s not pretty folks. And let me just say this: When I became curious about the experiments, in particular, that went on in the camps and I asked my father about them, he bluntly told me he couldn’t talk about it because it sickened him so much. This coming from a man that had been deployed and seen things that would make other men loose their lunches and who I’d always thought couldn’t be disgusted by anything in history. He does not like talking about it, and even told his student in the Air Force Academy that while they could ask him questions about this topic, he would not discuss it with anyone unless he absolutely had to.)
“History isn’t about dates and places and wars. It’s about the people who fill the spaces between them.”
But the reason I was interested in this novel was because it dealt with a question that, when I had first started learning more and more about WWII and the horrors that went on, had been something I’d wondered about as well.
And, my gosh, did it bother me. Still bothers me to this day.
Basically, it’s this: If you met a little old man – someone in his nineties who could be your granddad – and found out he was a Nazi, what would you do? Obviously, this little old man has killed more innocents than any of us would want to really think about, but now he’s an old man riddled with grief for what he’s done and is just waiting for death to claim him. Do you still look at him and see a Nazi? Or do you see an old man who has murdered innocents but who should just be left alone to die on his own now?
Let me answer that question right now about what I’d do. I’d turn the man in. I’d do what Sage did and gone to the police, then the FBI. Because even though this little old man could not lift a gun now, he once did. And even though he might be guilt-ridden and sorry for everything he’s ever done and truly sees the mistake his actions caused, there are still countless men and women and children who don’t get to feel any of those emotions – or anything for that matter – that this man now does, simply because he didn’t say no when he could have. And to be quite blunt, I don’t give five hoots as to if this man downright hates himself for what he’s done, because even though he may not have completely believed in Hitler and his actions, this man still had a part in countless demises. Whether that be pulling the trigger himself or simply mixing the turnip, watered down soup for the prisoners in one of the camps, he still took part in murders. Murder doesn’t have a time-frame, thanks. Just because it’s been a few generations does not make it any better, any nicer or more compatible. It just makes it hurt a little less, which isn’t always a good thing.
Now, having said this, let me also get this out there:
Last year, when I was a freshman in college, I took a class called The Politics of Happiness (I kid you not) because I needed a Gen-Ed and this seemed to be an easy A. During this course, the professor had a speaker come in one day. He was a German man, born and raised in Germany, and talked about WWII.
He told us about how in Germany, right now German children are being raised in schools and homes and taught that they are born evil simply because they are German, and because of their ancestors part in the war, they will never be forgiven. How simply being born German is a sin and that they will forever be marked by what happened. Because even though these children were born long after the war was fought and won, they are somehow responsible for what their ancestors took part of.
To say the least, I felt sick to my stomach. Partly because I had never heard of something like this happening. But why would I? Why would anyone care about a German child being treated unfairly and being taught they’re evil and vile creatures simply because they were born to a certain nationality when Jewish children had once been told they were nothing but filth and of lesser value simply because they were also born to a certain nationality?
I wanted to laugh at the injustice of it all, right there in the middle of a class of 500 students who couldn’t care less about the lecture and just wanted to go home and sleep.
And then I thought of The Great Gatsby and how we are forever doomed to repeat the past.
And then I thought about the student who stood up and declared that the holocaust never happened.
How ironic is it (and not in the funny way) that right now German children are being taught to hate themselves for who they were born to when Jewish children were taught the same thing a few generations ago, and how in many (if not most) places in Europe now declares that the holocaust never happened and that it’s a story told by Jews and takes it out of history books because it offends some people?
“If you’ve lived through it, you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it, and if you didn’t – you will never understand.”
Because did F. Scott Fitzgerald ever get it right. We are doomed to repeat the past, no matter if it is on a scale as large as genocide or in the form of teaching children to hate themselves for sins they did not commit.