Thursday, May 25, 2023

Code Name Sapphire tells a story of family, love, and a daring Holocaust rescue

Pam Jenoff’s newest WWII novel takes its inspiration from an astonishing attempt by Belgian resistance fighters to stop a train heading to Auschwitz and rescue its Jewish occupants from certain death. How did they plan it? What mindset was required of those who risked their lives to undertake such a secretive, dangerous task?

The aspects of how the participants strategize and carry out the passengers’ liberation are the most gripping of the story. By the time we reach this episode, we’ve become familiar with the characters, their relationships, and how desperate choices propelled each of them to act.

Three women’s lives converge in occupied Belgium in 1942. Hannah Martel, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who had secretly drawn and printed subversive political cartoons, disembarks in Antwerp after her Havana-bound ship is turned away in Cuba and forced to return to Europe. Lily Abels, her cousin and once-close friend, whom Hannah hasn’t seen for a decade, willingly shelters her at her comfortable Brussels home. Now married to a doctor and the mother of a ten-year-old son, Lily takes pride in her Belgian citizenship and believes it will ensure her safety.

Having seen her fiancé killed in a pogrom back home, Hannah knows better, and realizes that her past activities make her a top German target. She needs to flee the country as soon as possible through unofficial channels, and her search leads her to Micheline, the young leader of the Sapphire Line, a clandestine network dedicated to rescuing downed Allied airmen and shepherding them out of Europe via the Pyrenees.

Although the cousins start to regain the close rapport they had in childhood, Hannah’s daring clandestine activities bring danger to Lily’s doorstep. She also grows intrigued by Micheline’s brother, Matteo, who happens to be a man from Lily’s past. All three women are flawed individuals who make mistakes they must quickly recover from: Lily, whose complacency leads her to deny the tragic reality facing all Belgium’s Jews; Hannah, who knowingly risks Lily’s safety; and Micheline, who must root out a mole in the Sapphire network.

Readers who enjoy WWII historical fiction about the resistance have plentiful choices, and the broad-brush characterizations mean this novel doesn't rise above the crowd as much as it could. The love triangle, which relies on coincidences of time and place, also feels unnecessary. The historical framework on which the plot is scaffolded, though, is well worth learning about through the story, which examines how people’s bravery bursts forth when circumstances demand it.

Code Name Sapphire was published by Park Row in February, and I read it from a NetGalley copy.

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