Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Deep Sea by Annika Thor

Deep Sea is the third book in Annika Thor's quartet of novels about the Steiner sisters who have been sent to Sweden to escape the Nazi sweep of Jews in Vienna, Austria. Stephie Steiner is now sixteen years old and attending grammar school on the mainland  in Goteborg, Sweden. Meanwhile, her younger sister, eleven year old Nellie, remains on with her foster parents, Auntie Alma and Uncle Sigurd. Stephie visits Nellie once per month and during school vacations, something that pricks her conscience because she promised to take care of Nellie. In Goteborg, Stephie lives with May, her parents, Aunt Tyra and Uncle Britten and their large family in Standarna. Unlike most of her older siblings and other children in the area, May has been able to continue on through to grammar school due to scholarships.

Stephie had been receiving postcards from her parents who are living in Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia. The postcards do not have pictures and have exactly thirty words, often asking for food parcels to be sent. The last card she received was in the autumn of 1942 but a new card, dated March 13, 1943 tells Stephie that her mother will be singing "Queen of the Night" in The Magic Flute opera put on by the camp. This was a song her mother, an opera star always wanted to perform.

Every Wednesday Stephie meets her friend, Vera, who is also from the island. Vera works as a housemaid for a family that lives in the center of Goteborg, near the house where Stephie lived in her first year of grammar school with Sven and his parents. Vera loves to dance and has been trying to get Stephie to come with her to the Rotunda or Rota, a restaurant at the Liseberg Amusement Park. Although she's only four months older than Stephie, Vera acts much older than her sixteen years, going to dances and using plenty of make up. She tells Stephie that she has an appointment with a photographer who has promised to take pictures of her for magazines. Stephie doesn't feel good about this but she knows Vera wants to be famous some day.

At school Stephie is doing well, in large part to her homeroom teacher, Miss Hedvig Bjork who has been a teacher for only five years. Miss Bjork tells Stephie that she will likely receive a scholarship to continue on to high school and that she's certain the relief committee will provide a cost-of-living allowance.

Stephie's trip home to the island to see Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert and especially Nellie finds her younger sister rebellious and troubled. Nellie wishes she looked like the Swedish children around her. She tells Stephie that she continues to write their mama and papa every week, although she sounds upset. Before leaving the island, Stephie asks Aunt Marta to contact the relief committee about paying for her room and board for the next school year. She later learns that the relief committee will not sponsor her for another year because she is expected to "earn her keep". This news is especially discouraging to Stephie, who wants to study to become a doctor. Miss Bjork suggests that with her good marks they might be able to get the relief committee to accept a compromise - to fund her for two years of high school. This will mean that Stephie will have to complete her first year of high school during the summer. Miss Bjork is successful in getting the relief committee to fund Stephie for two more years and she arranges to tutor Stephie over the summer on the island.

Two letters from Stephie's parents reveal several things; first that her mother was not able to sing at the concert and secondly that Nellie has not been writing to their parents. This leads Stephie to return to the island and confront Nellie. Nellie is convinced that Mama and Papa gave them up and did not want them, infuriating Stephie.

Meanwhile Stephie decides to accompany Vera to a dance at the Rota. With the help of Vera she is made up to seem older and spends the night dancing. But when things get out of hand, Stephie decides to leave Vera behind and go home. This night will have repercussions for both girls but especially for Ver.

When summer arrives, Stephie returns to the island to prepare for the arrival of Miss Bjork and her friend Janice. The summer means working on completing her first year of high school and trying to reconnect with Nellie. But this summer will bring with it both surprises and a terrible loss that leaves Stephie reconsidering what it means to be Jewish.


Like the other novels in this series, Deep Sea is slow paced but gradually draws the reader into the story. Told from Stephie's point of view, we watch her as she struggles to find her own identity as a dark haired person of Jewish ancestry in a predominantly Christian society populated by fair haired, blue eyed people. Readers also see Stephie coming of age as she watches her friend Vera make poor decisions that negatively impact her future.

The novel demonstrates how the Holocaust broke apart families and how it impacted those children who were separated from their parents. The price of safety was high; lost years, disrupted relationships between parents and their children, loss of Jewish culture.

For example, Stephie thinks about what was and what might have been. "After four years in Sweden, Stephie has nearly forgotten that she once lived in a big, beautiful apartment with soft carpets and antique furniture. That she and Nellie had a large, bright nursery, and Papa had a study full of books. If they had still been living there, she would never have known anyone like May. Or anyone like Vera."

When Stephie discovers that Nellie has not been writing to their parents she wonders about how the war has changed things. She assumed that after the war they would be able to resume their lives and go back to their homes. But her friend Judith tells her they don't have homes anymore. "Until now she had always imagined that when the war was over, things would be like before. That Momma, Papa, Nellie, and she would return to their big apartment near Prater Park and that they would be a family again."
"Is it possible to be reunited just like that, after four, five, or six years, and live together as if nothing had happened? If the war goes on for a couple more years, Stephie will be an adult when it ends. Nellie, her little sister, will be an obstinate teenager who feels more at home in Sweden than in Vienna."

The novel also touches on one aspect of life for Jewish children who were hidden or sent to live in other countries, often with Christians, and that is the forced or encouraged conversion from Judaism to Christianity. In our era, where different cultures are respected the idea that Jewish children would have been forced to become Christians might seem incredible. It's easy to look back at this time period through the lens of our era that is more accepting of differences and criticize the actions of previous generations. There was a history of discrimination against the Jewish people that extended through the centuries before. This attitude allowed for pogroms in Eastern Europe and for inaction on the part of many countries, including Canada and the United States, when Nazi Germany began to restrict the rights of Jews in Germany and eventually began to force them into ghettos. Fearing the worst, an effort was made to save Jewish children by either hiding them with Christian families in Europe or sending them off the continent to England and Sweden. For those hidden in Christian families, it was imperative that these children pass as Christians. This meant they had to learn Catholic prayers, go to Mass or Christian services and eat pork. For those children sent to Sweden, Jewish children were sometimes expected to participate in Christian worship and even to convert.

In Deep Sea, one scene in particular stands out. Stephie goes to the church to ask for money to send a care package to her parents at Theresienstadt. However, before they are even willing to consider donating, the Christian parishioners question Stephie, asking what seem like the most ridiculous questions.
"Remind me," the woman says. "Your parents aren't Christian, are they?"
"No," says Stephie. "They're Jewish."
"Would it be possible for them to be baptized at the camp?"
Stephie can't believe her ears. Here she is talking about cold winters, hunger, and illness, and the lady suggests that her parents change their religion!:
"If they were Christian," the woman goes on, "I'm sure it would be easier for us to help them..."

In the end, the people refuse to send a package but offer to pray. Faith without good works brings God to no one. Aunt Marta partially understands Stephie's pain when she tells her of the congregation's decision. "I heard them, and I grieve the fact that there is so much hardness of heart among people who ought to know what love of one's fellow man implies."

When Judith comes to visit Stephie at Aunt Marta's and sees her eating pork and later on sees the picture of Jesus in her room she admonishes Stephie and accuses her of betraying her heritage. "What have they done to you?" she asks. "Did they force you to convert to Christianity?" This leads to a great deal of conflict for Stephie, who recognizes the sacrifices Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert have made on her behalf. Under the wonderful encouragement of Uncle Evert, Stephie manages to stay strong in light of so many disappointments.

One can't help but feel the similarities between this novel and Anne of Green Gables. Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert are like Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert while May resembles Anne's best friend, Diana and Miss Hedvig Bjork is Miss Stacey, Anne's optimistic mentor and teacher.

Overall, Deep Sea is a good read for young teens, exploring family separation and the effect of war on families, loneliness and adjusting to life in a very different culture. This novel's third person narration make Stephie's experiences seem real. I am looking forward to the publication of Annika Thor's fourth book.

Book Details:

Deep Sea by Annika Thor (Translated from the Swedish by Linda Schenck)
New York: Delacorte Press     2015
228 pp.

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