I love this book. What else can I say? This story grabbed my heartstrings in its fist and wouldn't let them go.
(And it feels wrong to say that. How can you love a story composed of tragedy and set in unimaginable suffering? I guess it's because I fell in love with the characters, and with watching them care for each other and grow increasingly more tenderhearted and brave as the story went on.)
Having pored over books like Ken Burn's The War, I already had metal images of the death camps and the work camps and the Jews who died there.
This book contains enough detail to bring those pictures back to mind, and the facts fit in with what I'd previously studied.
And this book gives back the stories behind the anonymous pictures, as the author crafts a "What if?" that you so wish could have been true.
For Such a Time made me wish that I wasn't reading fiction. I wanted to believe that things like this could have happened.
Colonel Aric von Schmidt. He's the camp Kommandant at Theresienstadt. As a soldier, Aric had fought against trained armies and fellow warriors.
His new work, supposedly for the same cause, is a polar opposite: managing a camp of the weakest, frailest, oldest, and most beaten down of Jews.
That is not work for an Austrian military man. That is the work of a bully.
And so he finds himself to be a walking contradiction. As a Nazi Kommandant, his uniform and rank mark him as a ruthless killer, yet he had received the Knight's Cross, a medal that symbolizes all the highest ideals of self-sacrifice and courage.
He rues the turn his life has taken, yet how can one man stem the tide? Even his own martyrdom would not end the death and stop the trains.
So he keeps on, day to day, until he himself wonders whether he even has a soul left.
"How could there be goodness in a man like him?" That is what Stella wonders. For some reason that she doesn't understand, this man pulled her out of the firing line at Dachau. He saved her life, but what does he want with her and who does he think she is? The only demand he's made is that she give him her loyalty. He think's she's Stella Muller, of course. That was the name on her forged identification papers. Nobody knows that she's Hadassah Benjamin, Jewish maiden named for Queen Esther.
What she knows for sure is that Colonel Schmidt defies categorization. He's a Nazi Kommandant, yet the people he chooses to gather around him are all cast-offs on one way or another. And he takes care of them.
Joseph... the one-eared houseboy. Precocious and sweet, Joseph retains his innocence and faith. He is the first thing Stella allows herself to love in the Kommandant's house, and for Stella he symbolizes the fate of all the children.
Helen, the mute cook whose silent presence helps guide this household. She and Aric understand each other instinctively, and there is a strong loyalty between them. (Aric says that scent of Helen's apfelstrudel could lead men into battle.)
Sgt. Rand Grossman, Aric's best friend and brother-in-arms. Rand is trusted implicitly, and he deserves that trust. He lost a hand in the war, but he never lost his honor or his heart.
Kate Breslin has done something really wonderful: she has taken the story of Esther and rebuilt it in the days of the Holocaust. Stella is like Esther, and Aric has the basic role of Xerxes, and Stella's Uncle Morty is Mordecai... and yet the way she's done it is so seamless that if you didn't know the Biblical story, you wouldn't be hampered from devouring the book, and if you do know Esther's story, then Stella's clearly echoes the same truths.
This is a story of where, if anywhere, our hope lies, and asks the question "What do we do with ourselves when the world is so dark around us? How do we remember the Light?"
Thank you Bethany for my review copy!