Friday, May 28, 2021

The Woman with the Blue Star

  The Woman with the Blue Star
Author:  Pam Jenoff
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2021. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0778311546 / 978-0778311546

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The woman I see before me is not the one I expected at all."

Favorite Quote:  ".... when people look back on the history of this time, at what happened, they should see that we tried to do something."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


This World War II story begins at the end in 2016 in Krakow, Poland. From a hotel room, a young woman secretly watches an older woman in a town square. Two women in 2016 and a story of WWII in Poland implies one, if not two, survivors of the war. The question is who for the women are not identified and how for the story is yet to be told.

The story then goes back to 1942. It goes back to Sadie and Ella. Sadie is young, Jewish, Polish girl. Ella is a young, non-Jewish, Polish girl. The author's note points out that this story is based on actual history, but not of Krakow. The author does not specify why she moved the location to Krakow.

The history goes as follows. Leopold Socha, a sewage work in the town of Lvov (now in the Ukraine), used his knowledge of the city sewers to protect a group of Jews from the Nazis. Think about that. People went down to and lived in the sewers with all the filth that entails to escape and to survive. In fact, the sewer may have been their only chance at survival.

This story builds on two Jewish families - Sadie and her parents and Saul, his father, and his grandmother. The sewer worker who helps them is Pawel. Believe it or not, the filth and the horror of the life in the sewer and Pawel's role in their survival almost fades into the background of this story. To some extent, it is explained in the book itself. "To live with fear or grief or any emotion constantly would be paralyzing. So I put one foot in front of the other and I breathe and I string the days together. It isn't enough ... I want more for my life. But this is the reality."

This book focuses on the friendship between Sadie and Ella. Ella is an orphan, living with her stepmother who is a Nazi collaborator. Ella accidentally sees Sadie through a sewer grate. Both are starved for friendship and companionship and recognize that need in the other. Ella risks herself to see and help Sadie. Sadie risks revealing their hiding place to visit with Ella. Through their eyes and their relationships, the story reveals different aspects of the war - the collaborators, the fighting, the home army, the raids, and so much more.

The horrors witnessed in this book, the emotions of the families, the impossible choices, and the friendship between these two young women draw me completely into the story and keep me furiously reading until the last page. Given the opening sentence and small cast of characters, I do guess the ending well before it comes. Yet, I keep turning the pages to see how and wish that perhaps it may be different from what I envision.

What is so important about stories such as this one is that they remind us of man's atrocities towards man. The hope is that we may learn from these stories, research the histories, and then vow to never let it happen again. What is also important is the fact that these two young women transcend their differences to find friendship, and that along with the atrocities, such periods in history also brought out heroes who brought help and hope. Perhaps, one day we will learn.

About the Author

Pam Jenoff is the author of several books of historical fiction, including the NYT bestseller The Orphan's Tale. She holds a degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a degree in history from Cambridge, and she received her JD from UPenn. Her novels are inspired by her experiences working at the Pentagon and as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and 3 children near Philadelphia, where she teaches law.

About the Book

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Paris comes a riveting tale of courage and unlikely friendship during World War II.

1942. Sadie Gault is eighteen and living with her parents in the Kraków Ghetto during World War II. When the Nazis liquidate the ghetto, Sadie and her pregnant mother are forced to seek refuge in the perilous tunnels beneath the city. One day Sadie looks up through a grate and sees a girl about her own age buying flowers.

Ella Stepanek is an affluent Polish girl living a life of relative ease with her stepmother, who has developed close alliances with the occupying Germans. While on an errand in the market, she catches a glimpse of something moving beneath a grate in the street. Upon closer inspection, she realizes it’s a girl hiding.

Ella begins to aid Sadie and the two become close, but as the dangers of the war worsen, their lives are set on a collision course that will test them in the face of overwhelming odds. Inspired by incredible true stories, The Woman with the Blue Star is an unforgettable testament to the power of friendship and the extraordinary strength of the human will to survive.

Q&A with the Author

Why did you decide to write this story?

While looking for an idea for my next book, I discovered the incredible story of a group of Jewish people who had hidden from the Nazis by living for many months in the sewers of Lviv, Poland. I was struck by the horrific circumstances which they endured, as well as their ingenuity and resilience in surviving there. I was also moved by the selflessness of those who helped them, most notably a sewer worker, and by their search for human connection in such a dark and isolated place. 

After twenty-five years of working with World War II and the Holocaust, I find a story that makes me gasp, I know I am onto something that will make my readers feel the same way. This was certainly the case with the true inspiration for The Woman With The Blue Star.

How much research went into your story?

Immersing myself in the world where my story is set, whether the circus in The Orphan’s Tale or the sewer in The Woman With The Blue Star, is always one of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of beginning a book. I had so many questions: What did the sewer look and feel like? How was it possible to eat and sleep and even see in the dark underground space? Fortunately, there was an excellent non-fiction book, In The Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall, that explained so much of it. I learned that there were so many dangers beyond getting caught by the Germans, from drowning to floods. Every day was a battle for survival.

When I decided to move the story to Krakow, Poland (where I had lived for several years), I planned a research trip there. Those plans were scuttled by the pandemic, but I am lucky enough to still have good friends there who put me in touch with experts on the sewer and the city to help me (hopefully) get it right.

What takeaway message do you hope readers get from your book?

Sadie and Ella, two women from completely different worlds, form a deep bond that has profound and lasting consequences. I hope readers will see in them the ways in which we can transcend our differences and connect. I also hope readers recognize the ways in which reaching out to someone, even in the smallest or most fleeting way, can have a tremendous impact on that person’s life as well as his or her own.

What can you tell me about your next project?

My new book is set in Belgium and inspired by the incredible true story of the only Nazi death train ever to be ambushed on its way to Auschwitz.

Do you have any specific writing rituals, such as a certain pen, drink, outfit, etc?

I find that my writing routine has evolved over the years. For example, at one point I went in to my office to write, at another I went to a coffeeshop, now sometimes I am on the couch. I have written in castles and mountain getaways, but I have also written in my doctor’s waiting room and in my car. There are certain constants, though. I love the early morning and I would write from five to seven every day if I had the chance. I just love getting that first burst in before the day gets hectic. I am a short burst writer, which means I have no stamina. If you give me eight hours in a day, I don’t know what to do with that. I would much rather have an hour seven days per week. And as much caffeine as possible!

Which character is most like you and why?

In this book, I suppose I relate to Sadie because her sense of isolation in some ways reflects what we have all felt during this pandemic.

Readers can't get enough of WWII stories. Why the interest?

Personally, my love for the World War II era comes from the years I spent working in Krakow, Poland as a diplomat for the State Department. During that time. I worked on Holocaust issues and became very close to the surviving Jewish community in a way that deeply moved and changed me. More globally, I think World War II has great resonance for authors and readers. There is a drive to capture and tell stories from survivors now while we still have a chance. There is also a great deal of archival material that became available to authors as researchers after the Cold War ended that provides new ideas for books. And as an author, my goal is to take my reader and put her or him in the shoes of my protagonist so she or he asks, “What would I have done?” World War II, with its dire circumstances and stark choices, is incredibly fertile ground for storytelling.

Your stories are always Jewish related. What is the universal idea that captures readers of all backgrounds?

I would not describe my stories as “always Jewish related” but rather predominantly set around World War II and the Holocaust. This era is not only important in its own right but has many uniersal themes regarding human rights, prejudice and hate that are very relevant for our times.

Where do your stories come from? Do you do research?

I do research for new ideas and I am generally looking for two things. First, I would like to take a true bit of history and illuminate it so that readers can learn. Second, I am looking for an incredible, untold story. I have worked with World War II and the Holocaust for twenty-five years and if I find an idea that makes me gasp with surprise, I’m hopeful readers will feel the same way.

Do you work from an outline or do you write from the seat of your pants?

Well, I’m a “pantser” and that means I write by the seat of my pants and not from an outline, at least most of the time. So I don’t have a neat idea of where the book will wind up. I have an opening image and some general idea of where I will wind up and if I am lucky there are one or two high moments that I can see along the way, like lighthouses to guide me. But I am sometimes surprised by the end and that was certainly the case with The Woman With The Blue Star. That moment when you realize it is all going to come together is just one of the best feelings ever.

You are a bestselling author. How many books are expected from you per year? How many edit passes does your novel go through?

I used to write a book a year, but I’ve slowed down and now it is more like 18-24 months. I really prefer that creatively. My manuscripts go through many rounds of edits. The first round of changes are usually big picture and then it goes back and forth with the feedback getting increasingly more granular with each round of revision until my editor, agent and I are all satisfied.

Is there anything about you or your work that you'd like to share with readers?

I consider my books that are set around World War II and the Holocaust to be love songs to the people who lived through that most horrific period. I try to approach it with a great deal of respect and do them justice. On a very different note, I’d like to share that I always love connecting with readers. I invite each reader to find me online – through my website, Facebook author page, Twitter, Instagram or wherever they are hanging out.

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