I’ve been a fan of Ellie Midwood’s books for a few years now. Her dedication to the craft of writing and her ability to research and unearth interesting forgotten tales from World War 2, and present them as entertaining, educational fiction, is first rate.
No Woman’s Land: A Holocaust Novel is a must read.
Ilse Stein is a young teen with all the hopes and dreams of any other teenage girl when Hitler’s Germany begins its reign of terror, oppression’s increasing, the curfews growing stricter, the SA trashing shops and denouncing anyone who buys from Jews. Ilse’s family eventually moves to Frankfurt where she finds work in a factory with her older sister, Lily.
Then came the knock on the door. Men from the Reich Central Office for Jewish Resettlement orders them to pack and leave for Minsk in Byelorussia. Each member of the family are forced to sign a document for these men admitting to being an enemy of the German government and therefore relinquishing their rights to all the property and possessions they leave behind.
As stateless people, they board a train and two days later, her father falls ill and dies. “I traveled with his dead body for several hours. His head was still warm when they threw him out in the snow.”
Arriving in Minsk in November, 1941, the three girls lose their mother. “Rough, gloved hands were pulling us apart, separating families into mortified, shrieking entities… I lost the frail hand of my Mutti in the ashen air… I called for her in anguish but my voice was drowned in the ocean of others.” Ilse later learned her mother died in a gas van.
In the Minsk Ghetto, the German Jews are kept separate from the Russian Jews by wire.
Orders came down from Hitler’s headquarters that no skilled workers are “to be harmed, as they were essential for the war effort.”
The young girls then experience for the first time an execution as twenty-six Jews are lined up and shot for one who ran away.
I can’t emphasize enough how masterful the author’s storytelling is. The characters are real, with depth, strengths and weaknesses, courage and despair. The reader is right there in the middle of their misery, in the heat and in the cold, in the hunger and in the loss – and yet Ilse keeps discovering new ways to have hope, ways to keep her and her sisters alive.
Speaking Yiddish, the German Jews learn they can communicate with the Russian Jews on the other side of the wire. Slowly they make friends and learn the only way to survive this war is to steal, smuggle and trade.
Ilse becomes aware of various factions within the German military structure and how certain entities like the SS are not as protective of the skilled workers as those who must operate the factories.
After a mass execution of over 5000 skilled workers by the SS, the German Jews press forward to be chosen to fill the empty slots, noting “it was only women they wanted.”
Speaking up, Ilse is singled out, by Leutnant Willy Schultz. He places her in charge of his new brigade of workers.
Willy Schultz is an unhappily married, failed pilot, reassigned to run this fledgling office in Minsk. He is friendly, polite and enamored by Ilse but doesn’t take advantage of her. He does his best to help her and her sisters stay safe, providing Ilse with passes and rations, eventually bringing her to his government office to type official documents although she is no typist.
And then, as the horrors of the war and the behavior of the Gestapo press in on both of them, Willy decides he is in love with Ilse and wants to be with her no matter what. He even turns down a new promotion that would take him away from her.
And then comes the dreadful SS Aktionen on orders to liquidate all the Ghettos in occupied Eastern territories.
Willy Schultz risks everything, leading Ilse’s brigade of workers, and her sisters, down into the basement of a place where he believes they won’t be discovered.
“The order of the executive action was given to the heads of the Einsatzgruppen by Reichsfuhrer Himmler himself… All women, children, the sick, and the elderly are subjects for immediate execution.”
For four days they sleep in the cellar.
After the liquidation is complete, Willy and Ilse bring the brigade back out in the light and tell them to go back to work as if nothing happened. When the SS pokes its nose back into his business, Willy talks his way out of it but the brigade is sent into the ghetto to clean up the mess and the bodies of their friends and families who weren’t hidden and protected. “We lined them all up along the road regardless – the stiff and the bloated, the young and the elderly, the men and the women, until the streets were full of them.”
Pressure from above and beside Willy, urge him to quit protecting these Jews and this girl. People are taking an interest in his behavior and he could lose his life.
Willy can’t take it anymore. Ilse has trusted him with names, with activities of partisans in the camp and in the woods. He helps the Jews collect the proper documentation and information to make their escape – an escape he plans to make with them.
The most amazing part of ‘No Woman’s Land’ is the fact that most of it is based on a true story. Ilse Stein and Willy Schultz were real people who met in Minsk in 1942 after his “brigade was killed by the SS during the Purim massacre.”
This is an amazing tale of courage and love in the face of evil and death. I highly recommend this book. You won’t forget it once you’ve read it. It is powerful historical fiction that literally bleeds off the page and becomes a part of you. 5 stars.
Allen M Werner is the author of the epic fantasy series The Crystal Crux
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