I just read the netgalley version of Rose Under Fire. Afterwards I spent lots of time researching Ravensbruck, mostly because of some reviews on Good Reads that really annoyed me. So this review is kind of a mix between a review of the book and some of the research I found.
Rose Under Fire is a companion book to Code Name Verity and takes place in the last few months of the WW2 on the European front. Rose an American girl has been raised in Pennsylvania flying planes with her dad, and somehow gets her British uncle who is high up in the Royal Engineers to pull strings to bring her to England as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary, women and other noncombatants who flew planes or pilots to where they were needed for combat.
Following the liberation of Paris, Rose flies her Uncle Roger to Reims, via Paris, where they fly over the Eiffel Tower. After landing, Rose is to take a Spitfire back to Southampton, but instead she sort of falls off the face of the earth. Following are letters from her aunt and her friend Maddie trying to trace her but we learn that on her way back Rose tried to come up behind a flying bomb, got lost and then encountered armed enemy planes which forced her into Germany and took her to Ravensbrück.
The story of her six months in Ravensbrück are told through in the form of a memoire after she has gotten out of Ravensbrück, how we don’t know, but she is now in the Paris Ritz, afraid of leaving her room, but writing her experiences down. It’s all kind of murky. The story is intense and the author Elizabeth Wein, did a great deal of research into the topic. Some may ask, as I did, why there are so few Jews mentioned. About 20% of the inmates were Jews. [According to Rose Seidel, a scholar who has written a lot on Ravensbrück, “an estimated 26,000 Jewish women passed through or were murdered at this camp.”] It turns out that Ravensbrück was a concentration camp set up for political prisoners though many died from diseases as well as from “selections.’ In all about 92.000 women died there. Most of the prisoners were sent out to do labor in factories as was Rose.
Rose, or French political prisoner 51498, was put in block 32 with a mixed group, though mostly Poles, along with women who had been experimented on, known as Rabbits, because their legs had been experimented on, and they become the focus of her story. These Polish women, there were seventy-four of them, and in Rose Under Fire, as in reality, there was a real struggle to hide and protect the Rabbits so that their story would be learned. Rose becomes friends with several Rabbits, in particular, Róża and Karolina. Rose’s barrack decides that they need to learn all the Rabbits’ names and Lisette suggests “a poem for a mnemonic. Make yourself another counting-out rhyme.”[p202]
I had not read much about Ravensbrück and doubt that I am alone. Ravensbrück was in East Germany so it was not well documented after WW2. It also was a camp for women and therefore has not been studied to the extent of other concentration camps. In the end this story is so packed full of information about Ravensbrück and different crimes that went on there, and about part of the Nuremberg trials as well as making Wein’s characters truly come to life. Elizabeth Wein did a great job of bearing witness to the horrors that went on at Ravensbrück as well as imagining the type of response a girl like Rose would have had to this experience. Some have criticized Rose but that is to forget the post-traumatic stress that she must have endured. I particularly liked the Afterword / Declaration of Causes where Wein quotes Primo Levi that the “true witnesses to the atrocities…were the dead’ and then goes on to say that “Rose’s testimony is even further removed because [she] made it up.” Like the first, this is a book that bears rereading because it is so complex.