At the end of the Second World War, Klara Janowska and her daughter, Alicja, find themselves in a refugee camp in Germany while waiting to be repatriated to England. Along with thousands of other displaced persons, Klara and Alicja have to endure appalling conditions but then Klara recognises a man from her past and knows she has to kill him before he kills her.
As a dangerous game of cat and mouse ensues, Klara takes three orphans under her wing while fighting her attraction to Davide, a camp administrator scarred by the loss of his wife and daughter, who acts like her guardian angel. However, Klara doesn’t have time to fall in love because she needs to get out of the camp and is prepared to do anything to make that happen.
At the end of the Second World War, just under 20 million people were classed as displaced persons as they had either been uprooted from their homes or had been freed from Nazi concentration camps. As you can imagine, finding a place for all those people was a severe challenge for the Allied forces who had to care for thousands of refugees in makeshift camps until a more permanent solution could be found. The camps had to be supplied with food, clothing and medical supplies which were already scarce due to the deprivations of the war years so it was difficult to ensure the refugees many needs were met.
In The Survivors, Klara and Alicja are interred in a camp in Germany after having walked all the way from Poland and are hoping to be repatriated to England where Klara has relatives. The camp is a dangerous place though the refugees are still fighting for survival due to a lack of food and the supplies. Klara is tough though and she finds away of procuring the things people want the most and is a operating a black market scheme to ensure she and Alicja are safe. Klara’s plans are upset though when she spots a familiar face from her past and she realises she will never be safe while he is there.
It takes a while for Klara’s background story to be revealed but it isn’t hard to figure out who the man is and why she is so afraid. Reviewing books like this is always a dilemma because you don’t want to reveal too much of the plot for fearing of spoiling it for someone else but suffice to say there are few secrets in Klara’s past that she doesn’t want revealed to the authorities.
The book is narrated by both Klara and her daughter, Alicja, so we get to see two different points of view which is essential as Klara sometimes does a lot of questionable things. Although Alicja is very young, she does have good insight into what is going on because she has endured so much through the war and is wise beyond her years. Klara is a strong character who has to make some hard decisions, decisions that are sometimes morally questionable, but she dares the reader to judge her motives and you find yourself asking what you would do in the circumstances. There are a myriad of other characters in their lives, some good some bad, and there are a few I wouldn’t have minded getting to know better but there just wasn’t enough time.
The setting of the book is incredible and it highlighted a period in the aftermath of the war that I wasn’t too familiar with. While I knew thousands of people had been released from concentration camps and had to be repatriated, I never really thought about how that process was achieved and where these refugees lived in the meantime. Many of the refugees were living in appalling conditions as the authorities struggled to provide for them and as the book progresses you learn how the camps were initially run by the military and were eventually taken over by the United Nations. It certainly sends a shiver down your spine when you realise not much as changed today when you consider the conditions our modern day refugees endure without the same level of help.
Klara and Alicja’s camp is situated in Germany which comes with a whole set of additional problems as there are German refugees in the camp which unsettles many. The German refugees were dissidents who either spoke out against the Nazi regime or were considered unsuitable to be part of the new Reich but most of the refugees cannot see past the fact they are German. The camp’s situation also makes it more difficult for supplies to be procured as the nearby towns have been destroyed by the Allies to the extent the Germans are starving. While I knew German towns were heavily bombed by the Allies, I had no idea how heavy the bombardment was and the sheer number of people who were killed. I think we are taught a very black and white view of the war at school, however I’ve been reading a lot of books lately which tell a different story about how civilians were trapped in their own Nazi nightmare.
The pace of the book is quite tight and I felt like I raced through the reading even though there was a lot to ponder, however there are a few twists at the end of the book which I felt were unnecessary and spoiled certain aspects for me. There was enough going on in the plot with Klara for me not to care about things like hidden Nazi treasure which is such a cliche anyway and the twist in Klara’s personal life had me rolling my eyes as we were in firmly in soapland territory here.