The Girl from the Train by Irma Joubert

By Ekta R. Garg

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Rating: Bookmark it!

A young girl narrowly escapes a train on its way to a concentration camp. A man fights the Nazis with every ounce of himself, all the while trying to resolve his ideals with the principles of rising Communism. The two meet, and neither of their lives is ever the same. South African author Irma Joubert introduces readers to characters for the first time in English in the quietly optimistic novel The Girl from the Train.

At the age of six, Gretl Schmidt has already lived through the ravages of World War II. Her family, ousted first from their home and then a Jewish ghetto, is riding a train through Poland to a concentration camp. A split-second decision saves Gretl but leaves her completely alone, and she wanders the Polish countryside not sure what to do next.

Jakob Kowalski saw Gretl’s train; in fact, he and his comrades planted the bomb on the tracks. He watches in horror as the bomb meant for a train of German troops destroys a train of innocents. When he meets Gretl much later, he doesn’t have the heart to tell her of his role in her family’s death. So he tries to assuage his guilt by taking her home to live with his family.

The Kowalski family, all Catholic, is less than enthusiastic about housing the little girl. Provisions don’t come easily in Poland. The German invasion took most of what everyone has; the Soviets who promise to help Poland by bringing Communism with them almost eradicate the little left. Jakob’s mother, in particular, remains suspicious of Gretl. She looks too German, too Jewish, too much unlike them.

After three years of family pressure, Jakob makes the difficult decision to send Gretl to South Africa through a program designed to help orphans find new families. New Protestant families. South Africans remain just as suspicious of Nazis as many others; they’re even more wary of anyone with any ties to Communism. A connection to a Catholic family can cause a rousing argument. Jakob knows all of this and sends Gretl anyway. Gretl knows all of this and hides all of the most important parts of her past.

Despite living continents apart, however, Gretl and Jakob continue to remain linked by their hearts. When their circumstances bring them back together again, they must decide whether their flowering relationship can withstand society’s expectations. More than all this, however, Gretl must decide whether she can reveal the truth of herself to the family she has now come to think of as her own.

Author Irma Joubert’s first novel to be translated into English will transport readers to another place with a strong tie to the events of World War II. Most interesting to note is the far-reaching affect the war had on so many countries. While some countries dealt with war, others engaged in the effort to help; this juxtaposition offers dozens of possibilities for good characters. In Gretl and Jakob, readers will find characters to love.

Joubert’s novel leans more in the literary direction. After the initial events to set their stories in motion, Gretl and Jakob spend quite a bit of time in introspection and readers get a first-row seat to their ponderings. This approach encourages readers to listen to the characters and watch the story with quietness, almost a solemnity. Because of the plethora of books in this anniversary year of the end of WWII, some readers might appreciate the less noisy quality of this book.

The faith of the various characters does come into play but not in an overt way, and in the end Joubert manages to convey the universal difficulty of facing choices that challenge the heart of a person’s convictions. I highly recommend readers Bookmark The Girl from the Train.