This was a very hard book to read for all of the obvious reasons, but for me, reading about a (German) disabled character during the war was a special experience, & one which totally broke my heart. This book is full of a lot of sadness, but also highlights the strength of those who lived through the war & those who fought against the Nazi regime, both in the tiniest of ways & the biggest.
I was sent a digital copy of this book by the publisher in return for an honest review.
⚠️ This story is about World War 2 & includes all the horrors of the Nazis including detailed violence, bombings, homophobia, slavery, antisemitism, ableism (& many other forms of discrimination), trauma conditions, a forced hysterectomy on a disabled character, references to off-page sex slavery, sexual assault, neglect toward new born babies, a description of the gas “showers” used by the Nazis & the death of several “main” characters, including the disabled protagonist ⚠️
Victoria’s War follows character Victoria, a young Polish catholic, as she goes from being ready to start university, to being a slave in a German bakery whilst grieving for her sister, whose murder she witnessed. During her slavery, Victoria meets her “owner’s” daughter, Etta, who is Deaf & hates everything her family stands for. The pair develop a friendship & attempt to do all they can to ease the suffering of those around them who have also been forced into slavery by the Nazis. But, the girls’ secret is discovered & Etta is murdered whilst a ‘hospital’ prisoner, leading to Victoria putting herself in more & more danger in Etta’s memory. This book is incredibly sad but shows the importance of good friendships & encourages the reader to want to fight for a better world.
Before discussing anything else I need to go straight to the topic of Etta & her Deafness – this part of my review is quite long so if you don’t like it, don’t bother reading any further. When I first met Etta I was uneasy about her presence in the story – Etta is German & her family are supporters of Hitler & the Nazis. This initially made me uncomfortable as a disabled reader because of the very over-used (harmful & unnecessary) trope of the token disabled character being the bad guy; I reasoned in my head that if Victoria had been Deaf she would have been murdered by the Nazis immediately so if either of the protagonists were to have a disability, it would work better with Etta. I still didn’t feel great about it though.
However, once I got to know Etta my feelings changed – Etta isn’t like her ableist Nazi family, she hates Hitler (& she says this out loud to her parents at one point) & as her friendship builds with Victoria she realises that what her parents have told her is wrong, & that she doesn’t want a world where minorities suffer. Together, the girls provide essentials for other slaves & constantly put themselves at risk by helping others. Once Etta’s mother discovers this though, Etta is sent off to a ‘hospital’ as her mother see’s her as mentally unwell – during her imprisonment in the hospital Etta is murdered & it’s so incredibly sad. Etta’s death occurs off-page & Catherine has been incredibly careful to only say how much is needed for the reader to understand that Etta was murdered using Zyklon B. It was really hard to read this part of the book but I also feel grateful that the truth of what happened to disabled people during World War 2 was included because it is very often forgotten about.
If you are disabled (& even if you’re not), you may not be comfortable with reading this book but it is very special to me for the careful way Etta’s story, which is based partially on a real person, is told & I am grateful that Catherine wanted to tell the world about the treatment the disabled community experienced at the hands of the Nazis. If you’d like to ask me some questions about the book before reading, please do DM me on Twitter!
The rest of the story, as the title suggests, is about Victoria & her fight against Hitler & the Nazis. At the start of the book Victoria is getting ready to leave her family home to go to university – instead, Victoria ends up saying goodbye to her father as he is forced to join the army. Very soon after this, Victoria witnesses the murder of her sister & is forced to start working in a Nazi sewing factory; but after being caught at a resistance meeting, Victoria is pushed into slavery. Victoria then has to watch herself change, as well as her friends & loses far too many people she cares about to death (both on-page & off-page). The events in the story occur & change very quickly within the first third of the book & this speed demonstrates just how quickly things changed for those who the Nazis targeted. Victoria is only 19-years-old in this book but we see her forced to grow up very quickly & this is evident in Catherine’s writing, making for incredibly emotional reading.
Catherine’s ability to write a good book was obvious very early on & the book was incredibly emotional from the get-go. Something I really appreciated were the photographs at the start of the book, & the people discussed at the end of the book, as they made it very clear that Catherine has created the story with her heart. I also found that the different settings, whether it was a sewing factory, bakery, prison cell, ‘hospital’ or a tiny attic space, were all written about in a very haunting way &, despite being someone who struggles to see images in my mind, I was able to grasp the atmosphere of the different locations with ease. This just made the book even harder to read & led to me being incredibly attached to both Victoria & Etta.
It took me a while to get into this book but by 40% I found it impossible to put down & I was staying up far too late just to get a couple more chapters in before sleeping. The ‘strange’ (probably not the right word, forgive me) thing about reading World War 2 stories is that you ultimately know how things will end; nevertheless, I was ‘surprised’, & hurt, by the different things Victoria had to face & how much the Nazis actually moved her around. This means that the reader visits a lot of horrific places within the pages of this story, but despite this & Etta’s death, the reader does experience an almost happy ending.
This book is definitely not for everyone; there are some tough topics included, especially ableism & abuse towards people with disabilities (including from Etta’s own family), but the book is very well written & I really didn’t want to put it down. If you think this is something you’d like to read then you can use one of the links below:
Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com | Book Depository | Hive
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