A stunningly ambitious and beautiful debut novel, perfect for fans of Sarah’s Key and All the Light We Cannot See, the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.
Before everything changed, Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. But now, in 1939, the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; her family’s fine possessions are hauled away; and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. Hannah and her best friend, Leo Martin, make a pact: come what may, they promise to have a future together.
A glimmer of hope appears in the form of the St. Louis, a transatlantic liner that can provide Jews safe passage to Cuba. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart on the luxurious ship bound for Havana. Life on board the St. Louis is like a surreal holiday for these refugees, with masquerade balls, exquisite meals, and polite, respectful service. But soon ominous rumors from Cuba overshadow the celebratory atmosphere, and the ship that once was their salvation seems likely to become their death sentence. Hannah and Leo must make an impossible choice or risk losing everything that matters.
Seven decades later in New York City, on her twelfth birthday, Anna Rosen receives a package from Hannah, a great-aunt she has never met but who raised her deceased father. In an attempt to piece together her father’s mysterious past, Anna and her mother travel to Havana to meet this elderly relative. Hannah tells them of her astonishing journey on the St. Louis and, for the first time, reveals how she and Leo honored the solemn pact they had made. By connecting the pain of the past to the mysteries of the present, Hannah gives her young great-niece a sense of their shared histories, forever intertwining their lives, honoring those they loved and cruelly lost.
This reading group guide for The German Girl includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Hannah Rosenthal woke up one morning in the spring of 1939 to find that her charmed life had been completely shattered. Germany was on the brink of war, and all she and her best friend, Leo, could do was depend on each other.
Hope appeared in the form of the SS St. Louis, a transatlantic liner offering Jews safe passage out of Germany. But soon ominous rumors from Cuba undermined the passengers’ fragile sense of safety. From one day to the next, the ship that once was their salvation seemed likely to become their doom.
Seven decades later in New York City, twelve-year-old Anna Rosen received a strange package, which would lead her and her mother on a journey to Havana to learn the truth about their family’s mysterious and tragic past, and to help her finally understand her place and her purpose in the world.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.” The book opens on a pretty dark scene in which Hannah believes death is the best way out of her current situation. Why do you think she feels this way? How does this set the tone for the rest of the book?
2. Consider Hannah’s reaction to being called “dirty” and then her reaction to being confused for an Aryan and ending up on the cover of Das Deutsche Mädel.
3. When Alma boards the St. Louis, she is wearing her best outfit and jewelry. Why is it so important for her to dress well as she leaves Germany? What message is she trying to send?
4. People praised The German Girl as “a timely must-read.” There are telegraphs and various news headlines interspersed throughout Hannah’s journey on the St. Louis, broadcasting the political climate and crises of the time. How do these compare to today’s headlines and crises?
5. Had you heard of the tragedy of the St. Louis prior to reading this book? How would those refugees have benefited from today’s social media exposure versus the newspaper coverage of the time?
6. Why does Hannah’s family feel betrayed by her brother’s involvement in the Cuban Revolution? How is it similar to their experience in Berlin prior to leaving Germany for Cuba?
7. There are many parallels in The German Girl. Among them are Alma’s and Ida’s reactions to grief, forcing their daughters to assume more responsibilities at a young age. What do you think of their insistence upon wanting to erase the past to make the present more bearable? Does this coping mechanism ever really help?
8. Compare and contrast Hannah and Anna and their reactions to loss. How have the tragedies experienced by the Rosenthals bound them together and affected the other?
9. The 907 passengers who were not allowed to disembark in Cuba—and were later also rejected by the United States and Canada—found refuge in Great Britain (288), the Netherlands (181), Belgium (214), and France (224), before all but those taken in by Great Britain were claimed by the war. What do you think happened to the passengers in the moments before they disembarked in those countries? How do you think the locals reacted to their arrival?
10. Hannah keeps the little blue box all those years without ever opening it. Why do you think she kept her promise? What did you expect Hannah to find in the little blue box?
11. What does Anna represent for the Rosen family? Why was it important for Anna to meet Hannah and finally bring closure to their family history?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The German Girl has been compared to The Nightingale, Schindler’s List, and All the Light We Cannot See. Read those titles with your book club and compare it to The German Girl. Are there any similar themes that occur? In what ways do you think that the books are alike?
2. Through Hannah and Anna, the author ties together the events of World War II (1939–1945), the Cuban Revolution (1959), and the September 11 attacks (2001). Research these three time periods and events. Have you ever considered how these events would be connected in other ways? What are the differences and similarities between these moments in history and the conflicts that inspired them or that they inspired?
3. To learn more about Armando Lucas Correa, read reviews of The German Girl and find him on tour, visit his official site at www.armandolucascorrea.com and the book’s official site at http://thegermangirl.squarespace.com/.
Armando Lucas Correa is an award-winning journalist, editor, author, and the recipient of several awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the Society of Professional Journalism. He is the author of the international bestseller The German Girl, which is now being published in thirteen languages. He lives in New York City with his partner and their three children. Visit ArmandoLucasCorrea.com.
“Fascinating . . . a brilliant entrée into the souls, terrors, ardors, endeavors and hopeless valor of people who have been written off. . . . Now, in a new age of people in peril and adrift on the world’s seas, this magnificent novel—and the unexpected and intricate tragedies of its powerfully imagined characters—bespeaks this eternal injustice.”
– Thomas Keneally, Bestselling author of Schindler’s List
“An unforgettable and resplendent novel which will take its place among the great historical fiction written about World War II. Hannah Rosenthal will remain in your heart and her determination to tell the story of what she saw, lived, and lost will change the way you look at the world.”
– Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Shoemaker's Wife
“powerful and affecting…that sheds light on a sorrowful piece of Holocaust history.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“I found myself unable to put the book down. I was able to identify with what my parents must have experienced first in Germany and later the St. Louis. . . . beautiful and heartbreaking.”
– Judith (Koepple) Steele, survivor of the St. Louis
"It was so true to our many life experiences… I became enthralled with the descriptions of the emotional turmoil that these characters endured.”
– Eva (Safier) Wiener, survivor of the St. Louis
“A vital tribute to liberty, love and justice…one of the most fascinating and extraordinary literary events of recent times.”
– Zoé Valdés, international bestselling author of The Weeping Woman
“Profound and moving … This novel touched me personally, especially because it is written from the point of view of a girl, just like me, on the ship. This tragedy, ignored for so many years, contains a lesson the world must learn and never forget: compassion for refugees.”
– Ana Maria (Karman) Gordon, survivor of the St. Louis