Pam Jenoff, “Kommandant’s Girl”

In 1939, Emma Bau is living a peaceful, happy life with her husband Jacob; when Germany invades Poland, however, her contented world is destroyed. Her husband, an active member of the Resistance, goes into hiding, and her parents are taken to a crumbling ghetto. With help, Emma becomes Anna Lipowsky, secretary to Kommandant Richwalder. As the war continues, and Emma’s world gradually turns into Anna’s, the young woman finds herself fighting attraction to the one man in charge of annihilating her life, her family and her culture. Kommandant’s Girl is a fresh, if disturbing look at one woman’s fight for survival during World War Two.

Plot Overview: Love, Courage and Weakness

Emma Bau is 19 years old and has been married for a short six weeks when German soldiers invade her hometown of Krakow. With help from her husband’s friends, she is taken to Krysia, Jacob’s aunt and a wealthy Catholic widow, where she disguises herself as a young Christian woman, Anna. Krysia also takes in a young boy, Lukasz, the only surviving child of a famous rabbi.

As Emma embraces her role as Anna, she comes to accept Krysia and Lukasz as her new family, one she is not willing to risk or sacrifice. But when the Resistance, and Jacob, urge her to gather information on the Nazis using whatever means necessary – including manipulation, deception and lust – Emma learns the fragility of life, family and love.

Criticisms and Compliments

Kommandant’s Girl is unlike typical World War Two fiction. It does not track the experience of people in hiding; it does not follow the heroics of soldiers; it does not explore widowhood. Rather, it is a look at the bold actions – and emotional turmoil – of a young, naive newlywed. Emma, or Anna, comes across as impossibly innocent, but circumstances, and her own inexperience, force her to mature. As she embarks on a passionate affair with a Nazi, she seems to realize that love is gray, but the value of human life is black and white.

Emma is a sympathetic character in many ways, but her relationship with Kommandant Richter makes her appear, at times, as a traitor to her husband and to her faith. Jenoff has a unique, provocative plot setup with a married Orthodox Jewish woman falling in lust, perhaps even love, with a Nazi commander; Emma is Jenoff’s flawed hero, one for whom the reader feels both compassion and disgust. Kommandant’s Girl is a distinctive look at the courage and weakness that plague human actions.

Source:

  • Jenoff, Pam. Kommandant’s Girl. MIRA Books, 2007 ISBN 9780778301448

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