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Reviewed by Debjani Ghosh for Readers' Favorite
A longing for the past that is never going to return – that’s the aftermath of a war. Annette Oppenlander’s When They Made Us Leave: A Novel about Hitler’s Mass Evacuation Program for Children details the brutalities of the Second World War from the perspective of the German youth (and their families) who had to attend the much-loathed KLV program (an evacuation program). As the frequency of Allied bombings increases in Germany, parents are encouraged, and in some cases forced, to send their children to youth camps where they will supposedly lead a better life. Fourteen-year-old Hilda and her childhood friend and love, Peter, are among them. While Hilda is reluctant to leave her mother, Peter is ecstatic to attend such a camp and spend time on the beaches, as promised by the camp organizers. However, Peter soon realizes the farce behind such camps which are being run like military camps by dogmatic individuals. Hilda, too, must endure a draconian abbess in the cloister she is forced to attend. Oppenlander describes Hilda's and Peter’s heart-wrenching journey through a war-stricken Germany back to their ravaged homes and into each other’s hearts in this book.
Oppenlander masterfully weaves historical facts with fiction to present a grim yet optimistic tale of cruelty, grief, love, kindness, and redemption. The mood is somber from page one, but I was sucked into the story due to her incredible storytelling skills and true-to-life characters. As misfortunes pile up on the protagonists, I couldn’t help but wonder, will they make it back alive, or unharmed? Instances of abuse are rampant across the KLV camps, resulting in increased cases of bed-wetting and nail-chewing among the attendees. As the war intensifies and supplies shorten throughout the country, such camps are besieged by diseases like diphtheria, diarrhea, and scabies. The incessantly hungry attendees witness incidents of inhumanity and kindness alike. Oppenlander describes such incidents impeccably but sensibly and doesn’t shy away from the truth. Some of these images will remain with me for a long time.
Oppenlander has done exhaustive research on the subject which is well reflected in the novel. I urge readers to go through the author’s notes at the end. They compelled me to read about these camps on the Internet and find out more about them. Annette Oppenlander’s When They Made Us Leave is a unique account of WWII from the perspective of those Germans who did not believe in Hitler’s inhumane views. Although it does not relate to the sufferings of the Jews, this book is by no means less equal than the books about them. It is therefore highly recommended.