The Extra is a historical novel that explores the fate of one young Gypsy woman and her family during the Second World War. Specifically, this novel deals with the mass round up, sterilization and genocide of the Romani people of Eastern Europe by the Nazis by focusing on the select few who were chosen to be extras in a film made by Hitler's favourite filmmaker and Nazi sympathizer, Leni Riefenstahl. This is a novel that ends on a positive note but the reader will be overwhelmed by the deep sense of tragedy over those who lost their lives and over those whose lives were irrevocably changed by the Nazi eugenics program.
The novel opens in 1940 by introducing the reader to Lilian (Lilo) Friwald who lives a comfortable life in Vienna, Austria with her father, Fernand, who is a master clockmaker, and her mother, Bluma, who makes exquisite lace. The Friwalds are Sinti, or gypsies who have just been fingerprinted. They are hopeful that nothing else will happen to them, but one day Lilo and her parents are forcibly removed from their home and sent to Rossauer Lande, a holding camp for gypsies. While at the holding camp, Lilo learns that at Ravensbruck, the Romani women and girls are being forcibly sterilized. Lilo is horrified. "It was as if the future had been erased, any hope for a future obliterated. Being in this barbed-wire cage was nothing compared with the utter darkness of the black wall of sterility, of a childless world, of a family that simply ended forever and ever. The Friwalds would be extinct."
After five days, the Friwalds are separated and Lilo and her mother are sent along with hundreds of other "Ziegeuner" to Buchenwald. At Buchenwald, Lilo learns that the Nazi's are forcibly sterilizing the Romani women, whom they consider to be inferior. Lilo is saved from this fate through the actions of a woman whom she calls the "Good Matron". During this time, Lilo meets a boy who has been in five camps already and who knows how to "organize" food and supplies. Django helps Lilo and her mother survive the brutal conditions and get selected for transport to Maxglan.
It is at Maxglan that Lilo, her mother and Django encounter the famous actress, Leni Riefenstahl, who is looking to recruit gypsies for her Spanish folk opera, Tiefland. All three are selected along with twenty others and are sent to Krun where they are housed in a barn. Conditions are better than at the work camp, and the three settle into working as extras on the film.
From this point on the novel traces Lilo's experiences as a gypsy film slave on through to the end of the war in 1945 as she attempts to ensure she is chosen to work on each stage of the filming in order to avoid being sent east to the death camps. Her life over the next few years is harsh, a mixture of both triumph and tragedy.
Kathryn Lasky based her Lilo character on a real gypsy teenager, Anna Blach, whom Riefenstahl used as a stand-in for her during the riding scenes. Blach was eventually sent to Auschwitz but survived.
Lasky's novel will help readers learn about another group the Nazi's targeted for their "final solution". The Roma and Sinti were considered useless breeders, an inferior race by the Nazi's and as such were targeted for medical experimentation and genocide. It is estimated that 500,000 gypsies were exterminated in the Second World War.
Lilo and the other Romani characters are portrayed realistically, and the author does a grand job showing them as human beings with the same dreams and hopes in life as the rest of us as well as the same weaknesses and fears. Their care and concern for one another while they are in the camps is contrasted to the predatory and sometimes animalistic character of Riefenstahl and some of the camp guards. However, Lasky is careful not to demonize all those caught in the Nazi war machine or those living in Austria and Germany.
Django who is a gypsy boy that Lilo eventually falls in love with is a well developed impact character who helps Lilo grow through most of the novel.
Lasky's ability to effectively capture the time period and to create a series of believable characters make this novel a treat for historical fiction fans.
To learn more about the genocide of the Romani peoples check out this website.
The Extra by Kathryn Lasky
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press 2013