Author: Elizabeth E. Wein
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: June 2013 (read Dec. 2018)
I liked, but didn’t love, the first book in this series, Code Name Verity. It was a good book, but it felt a little slow moving to me and I struggled to get into it, so I wasn’t super enthused about reading the second one, but I already owned a copy and I knew if I didn’t read it right after the first book, it was unlikely I’d ever get to it.
I’m so glad I did though because I actually liked this book a lot more than the first book (rare, I know). I would actually call this a companion novel to the first book rather than a sequel, so you could definitely read this one as a standalone, but there are spoilers for how the first book ends, so don’t read it first if you still want to read both books. But the plots are quite different, so if you’re more interested in this one, you could skip reading Code Name Verity.
Rose Under Fire tells the story of Rose Justice, an 18 year old American pilot who travels to England in WWII to fly plane for the Air Transport Authority, who ferry planes between different locations for the Royal Air Force (they are not combat pilots). It is nearing the end of the war and Germany has just been pushed out of Paris. Rose has the opportunity to drop off a plane in Paris, but she disappears on her return flight to England and no one knows what happened to her.
In reality, she ran into some German pilots and they forced her to fly and land in Germany. When she is unable to provide them with any meaningful information, they ship her off to Ravensbruck, the notorious woman’s prison near the Polish border. For those who are unfamiliar with Ravensbruck, it was not a death camp like Auschwitz (though many died there and gas chambers were constructed near the end of the war), but a work camp. But it is most famous for the Ravensbruck rabbits, a group a 74 Polish women on whom horrific medical experiments were completed.
I knew about Ravensbruck and the experiments, but I’ll admit it’s a topic I’ve been avoiding reading about because it’s just too horrific to think about. I avoided Lilac Girls when it was published in 2016 because despite sounding like something I would like, I was too afraid to read it. I’ve read a lot of books about the holocaust, but this is definitely one topic I’ve been avoiding because it’s just so disturbing. However, I really liked Wein’s depiction of the rabbits in this book. Rose is a witness to the rabbits rather than being one of them. Some of the rabbits died in the experiments, but many of them survived and were still living in Ravensbruck when Rose arrives. At this point in the story (late 1944), the Germans have ceased their experiments and in the face of the approaching allies are mostly trying to hide the evidence of the crimes they committed. I liked the depiction because Wein doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, horrible details of the experiments, but rather focuses on the spirit, tenacity, and courage of the women who survived.
Rose carries the story, but it is never really about her. Wein obviously took some liberties with the plot, but generally it is based in truth (not with Rose, but about the camp and the rabbits). What I found most inspiring was how vivacious these characters were, despite being the subjects of such atrocities. Instead of being defeated, they were mad and they wanted justice. Despite being forced to live in terrible living conditions while still healing from the experiments, they had a great capacity for love and willingly took Rose into their family when she was assigned to their barracks. They still had hopes and dreams for their futures. They wanted to continue learning so that one day, when they escaped Ravensbruck, they would still have a future ahead of them and could seek justice against the Nazis. They always looked out for one another and actively rebelled against the Nazis, trying to smuggle out pictures and stories of what had happened to them, ensuring the names of the women would be remembered despite the Nazi’s best attempts to hide them.
What was also inspiring was the respect the rest of the camp paid to these women. Before the allies arrived, the Nazi’s tried to mass murder the entire group of rabbits, and the other prisoners of Ravensbruck conspired to hide the rabbits from them. They hid them among other barracks, in hospital wings, and among the dead, sneaking them food and water to sustain them throughout this time. Everyone recognized that these women had been wronged and deserved to survive in order to tell their stories.
This story is also striking because of parallels to what is happening today in parts of the world (yes, it kills me to type this about a holocaust story). Wein talks about how unrelenting the Nazi’s were in their desire to wipe undesirable people from the face of the planet by the fact that in the face of the advancing allies, rather than leave the prisoners, they were determined to kill as many of them as possible to hide their crimes. Prisoners from Auschwitz and other death camps were transported to Ravensbruck as the allies approached. Gas chambers were constructed to aid in killing prisoners, but mostly they were just left to starve.
When Ravensbruck reached its capacity, prisoners from other death camps would be housed in tents and left without food or water until they died. Some of the rabbits would hide in these tents to escape their own executions and Wein talks about how the prisoners would lie at the bottom of the tent flaps to drink the rain as it poured down the sides because that was the only source of water they had. People literally died waiting to be processed. One of the big headlines in the papers while I was reading this was about the 7 year old migrant girl who died at the American border after walking hundreds of miles with her family to seek refuge, only to die of thirst at her destination while waiting for officials to do something. We have gone down this road before and we must do better, we must be better.