“The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own.”—Aldous Huxley.
Sofía Segovia, the bestselling author of The Murmur of Bees, has written another extraordinary historical novel, this time set in Eastern Europe during WWII. Tears of Amber is inspired by actual events—not only by official texts but also by the accounts of two children and their families who traveled enormous distances to survive one of the biggest exoduses in human history.
The Nazi Party pushes eastward, reaching the Hahlbrock and Schipper families in East Prussia. With war looming dangerously close, Ilse’s school days soon turn to lessons of survival. In the harshness of winter, her family and their young Polish laborer Janusz join the largest exodus in human history as they flee the Soviet Army. Janusz’s enchanting folktales keep Ilse’s mind off the cold, the hunger, and the horrors unfolding around them. He tells her of a besieged kingdom in the Baltic Sea from which spill the amber tears of a heartbroken queen.
Not far away, trying and failing to flee from a vengeful army, Arno and his mother hide in the ruins of a Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) mansion, hoping that once the war ends, they can reunite their scattered family. But their stay in the walled city proves untenable when they are soon dodging bombs and scavenging in the rubble. Soon they’ll become pawns caught between the Germans and the Soviets.
This is the first historical novel I’ve read set in Prussia, and I found the landscape, the history, and the people fascinating. Tears of Amber was also different from other WWII novels because of its take on how the Nazis brainwashed the German people into unmitigated hatred.
One of the key historical events is the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a tragedy few people have heard of. In January 1945, it was clear the fall of the Third Reich was inevitable. German citizens living in East Prussia converged on a Baltic port city to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German luxury ocean liner once enjoyed by Nazi officials. Just after 9 p.m. On January 30th, Soviet submarine S-13 fired three torpedoes and delivered a death blow to the ship. The death toll eclipsed that of the Titanic and Lusitania combined; some estimates are as high as 9,000.
Much of Tears of Amber was disturbing—war is truly hell—but the book was superbly written and features a large cast of unforgettable characters. In fact, the author first learned of the plight of the East Prussians from her friends Ilse and Anton, who resettled in her hometown of Monterey, Mexico. That’s what I call authentic. 5 stars.