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Irma Joubert’s The Girl From the Train

Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Aushwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks.

As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They intend to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.

Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her in. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.

But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.

Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.


Initially when this book came out, I very much wanted to read it…and then I just didn’t. But I have now! And I’m so glad I did. My thoughts:

What I liked:

The setting. You have a Jewish girl who starts off hiding in Poland and later makes her way to South Africa. All of it was intensely fascinating. Especially the parts of the novel that took place in South Africa…simply because I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve actually read a book that took place there. There was so much to learn and absorb and not in an overwhelming kind of way.

History. WWII and all those directly effected by it is extremely interesting and rich in the human experience. Gretl’s experience is a bit different from most WWII stories I’ve heard of and I found myself completely immersed in her story.

Gretl. She’s a survivor. It’s not often I love heroines and I loved Gretl.

Jakob. His love for his country bleeds through the pages. He’s a wonderful hero.  He makes mistakes, but there’s a gentleness and a humility there that makes them easy to forgive.

Romance. It so worked. Jakob and Gretl have an age difference. I loved that they acknowledged it and that in spite of it, they managed to fall in love. And as it was built on shared experiences and friendship, it completely worked.

Spiritually, the novel deals with Catholicism vs. Protestantism. Can you have a real relationship with God if you are one or the other? It’s rare to read a book that handles different sects of Christianity. I thought the author handled it well.

What I didn’t like

Minor things, like Gretl being a bit too perfect and things happening a bit too fast.

Romantic Scale: 8

Overall, I loved this book. In fact, I went out and bought another book my the same author the next day and have decided that the author is now on my auto-buy list. I can’t recommend it enough!

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