disclosure: we were sent the item mentioned in exchange for an honest review
Sometimes I read a book and feel that I really need to read it again almost immediately. Stella by Takis Würger is one of those books. Translated from German by Liesl Schillinger and published through Grove Press last month, Stella leaves you with very mixed emotions. The novel is based in part on a real German Jewish woman called Stella Ingrid Goldschlag and weaves fact and fiction together to produce not only a love story but a book that tests your own moral beliefs.
In Stella, we meet Friedrich, who was born in Choulex, near Geneva in Switzerland in 1922. Son to an alcoholic artist mother and a rich velvet importer father. Seven years later the young boy is brutally attacked and is lucky to survive, but he loses the ability to see colour. His artist mother has set her heart on him attending a prestigious art school in a European city, and now she’s left really in denial that she cannot live her life through her son in quite the way she’d envisaged.
In January 1942 the twenty-year-old Friedrich decides to go travelling, to improve his artistic skills, a rather strange thing to do in the middle of a war, but against the advice of both of his parents, he books a train ticket to Berlin to begin his adventures. He attends a nude study lesson and this is his first glimpse of Stella. Little did he know how intertwined their lives would become over the next twelve months.
Each chapter focuses on the next month of 1942, sharing historical facts from around the world at that time, as well as providing information read out during a tribunal held in 1946 regarding different Jewish people who had been betrayed to the Gestapo. You don’t really understand the full relevance of these particular details (or at least I didn’t) until nearer the end of Stella. The chapter then moves on to Friedrich and Stella themselves and how their relationship develops.
When Friedrich is first introduced to Stella, she tells him that her name is Kristin, she teaches Latin and sings in a club called the Melodie Klub which is actually outlawed under the Nazi regime. He has no reason to believe that she isn’t quite who she seems. At the club, Friedrich also meets a wealthy German called Tristan Von Appen and an unlikely friendship begins.
As the story progresses and ‘Kristin’ captures the heart of the young Swiss it becomes clear that there is far more to her than he was first led to believe. When she returns to him battered and bruised after disappearing for days, she admits that she isn’t German Aryan Kristin at all. In fact, her name is Stella Goldschlag, a German Jew who has been living with false papers. She tells him that she’s been interrogated by the Gestapo and that her parents have also been imprisoned. If she doesn’t betray a Jewish man known as a document forger then her parents will be transported to a concentration camp, and almost certain death.
At this point, the rather naive Friedrich wakes up to the reality of life in Germany, and the fate of so many innocent people. He also learns that his friend Tristan is actually a SS officer, but one who still enjoys listening to banned Jewish music, and is managing to smuggle in extravagant foods from France whilst the majority of those living in Berlin and beyond are living on meagre rations.
Friedrich soon realises that as well as betraying the forger, Stella is doing so much more. Betraying many others. Can he live with her and her life choices? They are walking a very thin line and he has to decide whether to stay or go.
Stella is beautifully written and is rather haunting. You start the book feeling captivated by this young woman, she’s an enigma. But as the novel unfolds you see the truth of her and the result of her actions.
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