Paris, 1941. As we drive down the cobbled street, I take in the red banners with swastikas covering every building. Suddenly a group of guards appears. I duck beneath the window of the car, and my heart thumps as my hand jumps to my chest. But I’m not wearing my yellow star now, I left it with my sister. Tears well in my eyes. Will I ever see her again?
1939. Standing in front of the orphanage’s imposing stone walls, eleven-year-old Jewish twins Helga and Ruth shiver with fear. The war has taken their mother and father, their home in Berlin has been turned to rubble, but their soft, dark eyes meet and Helga gives Ruth a reassuring smile. They should be safe here together.
Yet every day bombs fly overhead. And when Ruth becomes desperately unwell, the girls are torn apart. As war rages on, will they ever find each other?
Paris, 1990. When Naomi moves to Paris, she hopes the city will help her find herself again. But whilst exploring the antique markets in the early morning sun, she is shocked to discover a duplicate of a photograph her mother Helga has on her mantelpiece back in London of a magnificent vine-covered villa on the outskirts of the city. Naomi soon discovers it was used as an orphanage during the Second World War. But why was the photo so precious to her mother?
The Forgotten Children were those from Jewish families who were separated from their parents by the Nazis during the Second World War. Helga was one of those children. Now in 1990 she is still keeping her experiences secret from her daughter Naomi. As her daughter sets off for 6 months work in a Paris legal office Helga says nothing of the time when she too lived in the French capital. In dual time we follow Naomi’s experiences making new friends and working hard at a task which she loves, and then life for Helga and her twin sister Ruth in 1938. Living with their parents they have a happy life in Berlin unaware of the dark forces about to change everything.
This well researched novel features real events including the violent acts on Kristallnacht, the ill-fated voyage of the St Louis to Cuba and the many kind people who tried to help Jewish children escape from the Nazis. As Helga struggles to talk about her past, Naomi investigates the villa outside Paris which she recognises from a photograph in her mother’s bedroom. This causes a rift in her relationship with Helga on top of the feeling of estrangement between Naomi and her boyfriend, Liam, back in London.
Against the background of the breaking down of the Berlin wall, Helga lets down her defences and the reader becomes totally involved in her incredible life story. It’s an emotional experience of suffering and generosity. Helga is a survivor but at what cost to her mental well-being? Luckily Naomi’s maturity and understanding gradually brings them closer. As with all of Ann Bennett’s stories I was gripped by the intensity of the plot and couldn’t stop turning the pages.
The Forgotten Children on Amazon UK
My review of The Runaway Sisters by Ann Bennett