Thursday, October 24, 2013

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Justice has been flying planes since she was twelve years old, so it's no surprise that she has signed up to be part of the British Air Transport Auxiliary based out of Southampton, England. With the help of her Uncle Roger, Rose has managed to get through the red tape to work as a pilot flying new planes for the Royal Air Force to different bases in England and even overseas. It is 1944 and the Allied Invasion of Normandy has just happened a few months earlier. Rose feels lucky to be a part of the war effort and is glad she has so much flying experience prior to coming to England but she wants to go overseas.

Living in Hamble, Hampshire, Rose like everyone else in England is trying to cope with the V-1 bomb, pilotless planes that are bombs. These flying bombs are called vengeance weapons by the Germans, but the British give them all kinds of strange names including "doodlebugs". The bombs cause terror among the British because they can be heard thirty miles away. There is an eerie silence once the engine stops and then the bomb drops and explodes.

In September, 1944, Rose gets her wish, and arrives in Reims, France. Rose taxiied someone important over to France and is taking a Spitfire back to Southampton when she encounters a flying bomb over Epernay, France. Knowing the terrible destruction these weapons cause, Rose decides to go after the bomb to take it down and while she succeeds, she is intercepted by German Luftwaffe who force her to turn around and fly deep into Germany.

When she lands in Germany, Rose is interrogated and then forced to fly to Neubrandeburg, a satellite camp for the infamous women's concentration camp, Ravensbruck. Conditions at the camp are dehumanizing, and filthy with the women starving.

After surviving the quarantine isolation, Rose is sent to work in the Siemens factory making the electrical relays for the V-1 bomb fuses. When she realizes what she is doing, Rose refuses to work anymore. This act of defiance gets her sent back to Ravensbruck when she is brutally beaten and placed in Block 32.

It is at this point she meets the "rabbits" as they are called - several of the Polish women who have been experimented on and are now crippled. Rose is completely horrified by what she learns; that 74 women have been experimented on and that these women are slated to be executed. Rose forms a friendship with petite, seventeen year old Roza Czajkowska, who was imprisoned when she was fourteen for working in the Polish resistance. When Rose meets these women they tell her that they have managed to get word outside the camp about what is going on. Rose tells the Roza and others that she has heard about them on the BBC, but that everyone assumed this was anti-German propaganda because it was so unbelievable. Rose and several other women she meets, Karolina, Lisette and Irina all work together to help one another survive the brutal roll calls and the death lists. They make Rose promise "to tell the world" if she survives.

Rose Under Fire is a very powerful novel about one girl's experiences as a prisoner of war near the end of World War II. The novel is divided into three sections, Southampton, Ravensbruck, and Nuremburg. Rose narrates her experiences through each of these three phases.

In Southampton, Rose is an new pilot, fresh from America, young and inexperienced in the realities of war.Despite the bombs and devastation of London, Rose has yet to experience the effects of war on a deeply personal level. That changes in the second section of the novel.

In Ravensbruck, the story jumps ahead to April 17, 1945 and the reader knows that Rose is now in Paris. However, Rose is so traumatized by what happened to her that she cannot speak about it and instead writes everything in her journal. Wein makes use of flashbacks to have Rose tell her story and although not explicit, Wein does not shy away from portraying the details of camp life.

In Nuremberg Rose struggles to recover from her experiences, to live a normal life, to come to terms with the loss of her friends at Ravensbruck, and to see justice done. She wants to find out what happened to her friends, Roza and Irina, whom she became separated from. She is afraid to tell the world, as she promised because she is so traumatized.

By separating Rose's story into these three sections, Wein does an excellent job demonstrating how Rose's experiences changed her forever.Part of how this is expressed in through Rose's poetry which Wein places throughout the story. These poems are in fact the poetry of several poets including most notably,  Edna St. Vincent Millay, a famous American poet.

While the names of the "Rabbits" in this story are fictional, many other characters did exist including Dr. Leo Alexander, Marie Claude Vaillant-Couturier, the four Polish women who testified at the Nuremburg Doctor's Trial as well as the doctors, Fritz Fischer, Karl Gebhardt, and Herta Oberheuser.

Wein effectively captures the brutality and horror of existing in Ravensbruck, while also portraying the humanity of those who suffered there. This is historical fiction at its best. The subject is heavy, but readers will come away with a deeper understanding of the true horror of the Nazi regime, the depths of suffering inflicted on all of Europe,  and the price our parents and grandparents paid to win the war.

Elizabeth Wein has a detailed bibliography at the back of her novel which provides both online and print resources.

For those looking for further information on this historical event, the following websites may be of interest:

The real seventy-four women who were experimental subjects of SS Professor Karl Gebhardt, can be found here. This website provides pictures, putting faces to those who were tortured, maimed and who died.

For more on Ravensbruck you can check out this Canadian website.

The actual presentation by Dr. Leo Alexander can be found here:
This is a black and white video of this segment of the Nuremberg Doctor's Trial.

The Ravensbruck Memorial Site can be found at

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