A few things happened within the space of a moment. Rupert reached the end of his introduction, to which I had barely listened, though I did hear for the first time in my life this man’s name: Emil Becker. As though startled by the sound of it, the man looked up to see hat I was comparing our shoes and appeared to do the same…
‘Herr Becker,’ I said, my first words to him, ‘we must find you some shoes, and then supper.’
When he returns home to Germany from fighting in the Great War, Emil is disturbed by the path his country is on. Unemployment and inflation are high, and support for the Nazi cause is growing. As a member of the Resistance, it is eventually unsafe for him to stay with his family, and he flees.
In London, Hannah, a Russian Jew, grows up learning many languages. As a young adult she is determined to do two things – to write, and to make a difference. She travels to Europe where her skill with language makes her useful in dealing with refugees. There she meets Emil and knows instantly that he will be a part of her life.
Back in England the pair make a life together, in spite of Emil missing home and the young son he left behind, but when war strikes once again Emil is sent to Australia to be interned. Left behind, Hannah is determined to follow Emil and bring him home.
Hannah and Emil is a beautiful story of love and courage told through the alternating viewpoints of the two characters, with Hannah speaking in first person and Emil’s perspective in third person. The backgrounds of the two – a German who must eave his country because of his resistance to the Nazis, who nonetheless is interned during the war, and an English Jew – provide a unique perspective of the events up to and during the second world war.
Based on the lives of the author’s grandparents, this is a moving, absorbing tale.
Hannah and Emil, by Belinda Castles
Allen & Unwin, 2012
Available from good bookstores or online.