Review of “Rose Under Fire” by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire is a companion book to Code Name Verity, but all that means in practice is that a couple of the characters from the first book reappear; it is not necessary to have read Code Name Verity. Rose Under Fire in fact is quite a different book than Code Name Verity, and much better, in my opinion, although the first was quite good as well.

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The main character of this book is Rose Justice, an 18-year-old American who is in Britain in 1944 to help courier planes back and forth for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Rose tells her story as a remembrance in the first person, so we know she survives in spite of being intercepted by the Luftwaffe and sent to Ravensbrück, which was the only major Nazi concentration camp for women, located some 50 miles north of Berlin in Germany. After getting out, she has to learn to readjust to freedom from fear, pain, and the constant threat of death, and also fulfill her obligation on behalf of those who did not survive to tell the world about what happened.

Between 1939 and 1945, over 130,000 female prisoners (both women and children) passed through the Ravensbrück camp system, most of whom were Polish; only between 15,000 and 32,000 of the 130,000 survived. The rest died in the camp by starvation, disease, or executions. In addition to the Poles, there were 28,000 women from the Soviet Union, almost 24,000 from Germany and Austria, nearly 8,000 French women, and thousands from other countries in Europe. There were even British and American women imprisoned at the camp.

During the last months of the war, the SS tried to exterminate as many prisoners as they could, in order to eliminate the possibility of exposing what happened in the camp. Babies had no chance at Ravensbrück. Dozens of testimonies recounted how they were separated from their mothers and drowned or thrown into a sealed room until they died.

Several children along with grown women were also used for “medical” experiments, which began at the camp in 1942. Some women were infected with gas gangrene or bacterial inflammations, while others were forced to receive bone transplants and bone amputations. The most infamous experiments used Polish women as “guinea pigs” to simulate battlefield leg wounds of German soldiers. Most of these women died or were murdered afterward, and those who survived were crippled and disfigured. These were the women known as “Rabbits” who play such a large role in this story.

But this was also a camp to provide slave labor. Women inmates were used for a number of enterprises, including the Siemens Electric Company (today the second largest electric company in the world.) They also worked in the SS-owned factories, an SS-created brothel, carted away dead prisoners for burning, and performed hard labor in brutal conditions on starvation diets.

The Soviets liberated the camp on April 29-30, 1945, and found approximately 3,500 extremely ill prisoners living at the camp; the Nazis had sent the other remaining women on a death march.

More information about Ravensbrück can be found here.

In Rose Under Fire, the author utilized the testimony of women who had survived the camp to create composite characters. On the author’s website she stated that in particular, she drew from the autobiography of Betty Lussier, an American ATA pilot who was the goddaughter of William Stephenson, the man responsible for representing Britain’s wartime intelligence agencies in the USA. The experience of this pilot contributed to the story of Rose. The other two main protagonists owe their stories to the real life accounts of Wanda Połtawksa, one of the first Polish women to undergo medical experimentation at Ravensbrück and also the originator of the term ‘Rabbit’ for these women, and a Soviet Air Force pilot named Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova.

Rose’s experiences in the camp do not make pleasant reading, and yet even Rose (and the author through the voice of Rose) could not bring herself to describe some of the atrocities committed there. This was also a problem for the survivors after liberation (both in real life and in the book), as the question of testifying at Nuremberg arose. For these women, to have to relive the experience by testifying about it was on the one hand unthinkable. On the other, if they did not, the perpetrators would go unpunished and the dead would not finally get some “justice.”

Evaluation: Is it worth your while to read “yet another Holocaust novel”? Yes, I think it definitely is. This author has done excellent research, but manages not to go overboard in how explicit she is. Nevertheless, it is one of the few books that expose what happened in the important women’s camp of Ravensbrück. It is also an engaging story of friendship and support and enduring hope among unforgettable women. Book clubs will find that there is a great deal to discuss, especially with respect to the relativity of morality in a world turned upside down. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2013

Note: On the author’s website, she has posted a commemorative page on the real Polish Rabbits, which will be of great interest for readers. She also includes links to further historical background relevant to the story.

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17 Responses to Review of “Rose Under Fire” by Elizabeth Wein

  1. sandynawrot says:

    I’m pretty excited to read this. Heather O. raved about it, so I ordered it from the library and have it sitting on my nightstand to read next. I’m not totally sure I will remember the characters from Verity though, but I’m sure it stands fine on its own.

  2. Beth F says:

    Oh how did I miss this?? I really liked Code Name Verity and would definitely pick this up. And this is better? Adding it to my list.

  3. I’ve still got Code Name Verity on my list, but am adding this one, too!

  4. Heather says:

    I LOVED this one and agree that it was better than Verity.

  5. Sounds like a fascinating read. And glad to know I don’t have to read the first bookin order to appreciate it. Great review!

  6. This sounds gut wrenching and compelling at the same time. I’m adding it to my never ending wish list.

  7. Yeah I think I agree it’s the better book. Great review!

  8. Yeah I think I agree it’s the better book. Great review!

  9. Iris says:

    I find it very difficult to compare CNV and this one, but on first impulse I am inclined to agree that this is the better one. And yet, CNV was special to me too? Either way, Wein managed to completely erase all of my doubts with this one about needing “yet another holocaust novel” and also, about whether a companion novel is ever a good idea – if it isn’t destined to disappoint.

    • Iris,
      Ordinarily I wouldn’t be inclined to make a comparison, but I was one of the few people who wasn’t smitten with CNV (until the second half, at least), and so I felt, given my review of CNV, compelled to mention that with this book, I was drawn in from the very beginning.

  10. Argh, I keep going back and forth about whether I want to read this or not. I know I will think that it’s a good book, and at the same time I’m just not sure I can stomach all the misery I’ll be putting myself in for when I read it. (At least not right now. Maybe closer to Christmas.)

  11. I am in awe of the resilience of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis…I’ve only read great reviews of this one and already have it requested at the library. wonderful review!

  12. aartichapati says:

    I am reading Code Name Verity now and have Rose Under Fire on tap to read next, so will be sure to share my thoughts with you 🙂

  13. Keishon says:

    You answered my question at the top of the review. I was debating on this one but you’ve sold me. I have read CNV yet but I am not a big fan of books that don’t pull me in at the beginning. Such novels that need such work are found at the back of my tbr pile.

  14. Athira says:

    I doubt one should ever stop reading Holocaust books, but it is getting hard separating out the worthy ones from the somewhat-manipulative ones. This sounds like it should be high up on the list of must-reads.

  15. I loved Code Name Verity, so you know this one is on my wish list. I haven’t read anything about Ravensbruck yet, so I’m sure it’ll inspire me to do some research of my own.

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    I’m not sure if I have Code Name Verity on my wish list but I;m definitely adding this one.

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