Margo Tanenbaum's Reviews > Ausländer

Ausländer by Paul Dowswell
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's review
Jul 25, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: 1940s, world-war, world-war-ii
Read in July, 2011

Auslander is the German word for “foreigner,” and British novelist Paul Dowswell’s 2009 novel (to be released in the U.S. by Bloomsbury in August 2011) spins a compelling tale of one foreign youth’s experiences in Nazi Germany. When Peter’s parents are killed in the German invasion of Poland, he is sent to a Warsaw orphanage along with other war orphans. But 13-year-old Peter is one of the “lucky” ones; he’s Volksdeutscher--of German blood, with blond hair and blue eyes. He’s therefore selected to be adopted by a prominent German family, and soon is living comfortably in Berlin. His new father, Herr Kaltenbach, has an important job deciding who is “racially valuable” or “racially worthless.” He has three new sisters, and although Frau Kaltenbach is cold to him, he is kept busy with his new school and Hitler Youth meetings, barely leaving him time to be homesick for Poland. In his fantasies, he wants to be a Luftwaffe pilot, much to the delight of Herr Kaltenbach.

Although Peter may seem on the surface like the perfect young Nazi, he is unable to accept without question the Nazi propaganda he is fed at home and at school. When he becomes romantically involved with Anna, whose family works for the resistance, Peter soon is helping Jews go into hiding. When the Gestapo begins to suspect Peter and his friends, they must leave Berlin; will they be able to escape?

I was very impressed with the complexity of this story, which could be read by adults as well as young people. Dowswell’s carefully researched novel reminds young readers that not everyone in Nazi Germany was pro-Hitler or even a Nazi. Anna and Peter listen secretly to the BBC, and attend parties where they dance to “degenerate” American jazz. Peter is a well-rounded character, who although at first wanting to fit in with his new family and follow the party line, maintains his compassion and humanity throughout. For example, Peter not only puts himself in great danger to deliver messages for the resistance, he also wants to help fellow Poles who are working as slave labor in Berlin, and tries to bring them food. There is plenty of exciting action as well, especially at the end as Peter and Anna try to make their escape.

The author paints a vivid picture of what it was like to grow up in Nazi Germany, complete with fascinating details such as the family Christmas tree decorated with illuminated plastic swastikas. The children receive Christmas presents laced with Nazi propoganda, such as a book on the perils of fraternizing with Jews or a doorknocker decorated with a caricature of the head of a Jew. They hide in bomb shelters as the Allies bomb Berlin, killing thousands. Peter struggles with his beliefs, realizing that both the Allies and the Nazis are murdering innocent civilians.

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