Diney Costeloe is a member of my online book group & she very kindly offered to send me a copy of her latest book, Evil on the Wind. Elaine at Random Jottings had already reviewed it very positively so I was interested to read it. I must admit I don’t read a lot of fiction about WWII apart from books written during that time. Since I discovered Persephone Books & the marvellous books they’ve published about this period, I’ve been reluctant to read anything else. I’ve also read a lot of non-fiction about this period & I’ve come to prefer it. However, I was quickly swept up in the drama of Diney’s book & I read it in virtually one sitting.
The Friedmans are a Jewish family living in Germany in the late 30s. The book opens with an anti-Jewish riot in which the Friedman’s shop & home are burnt down & Kurt Friedman is arrested. His wife, Ruth, & their four children escape the mob & begin a harrowing journey & struggle to survive. Ruth goes to Kurt’s brother, Herbert, for help. He’s a wealthy lawyer but he’s horrified when the family turns up on his doorstep &, although he reluctantly allows them to stay, he obviously feels uncomfortable. He decides to emigrate to Argentina but is caught smuggling diamonds out of the country & arrested. His former housekeeper, Frau Schultz had been stealing from him & spying on him & Ruth’s family & she denounced Herbert to the authorities then confiscates his apartment & evicts Ruth & the children.
Ruth then goes to her mother in Stuttgart but finds she has been forced to sell the family home & is living in poverty. They decide to go to Ruth’s sister, Edith, in Vienna, & after securing with difficulty the passports needed for the children, they arrive to a frosty reception from well-off Edith. Ruth finds work in a draper’s store, rents a tiny apartment & gets the children into school.
All this time, we’re also following Kurt’s journey. He’s sent to Dachau after his arrest &, after enduring deprivation & brutality there, he’s released after he agrees to sell his home & give the proceeds to the government. It’s really no choice at all, of course, but freedom is the important thing & he sets off on a journey that takes him to Munich & Stuttgart (where he finds he’s missed his family), Hamburg, Holland & eventually England, where he works to find sponsors to bring Ruth & the children to safety. This is especially important after the Anschluss in 1938, when Germany annexed Austria & the laws against the Jews were intensified.
Ruth’s brother-in-law, David, is shocked when his father is arrested & he takes his family to Shanghai. Ruth loses her job & has to make a terrible choice when there is an opportunity for only two of the children to go on the Kindertransport. This charitable plan saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish children taken to safety in England, but at the cost of separation from their families.
The most compelling thing about this novel is the way it depicts the atmosphere of fear & suspicion of the time. I really felt what it would have been like to live in Germany at a time when anti-Jewish laws & propaganda had turned neighbours into potential spies & enemies. The Friedmans are helped by many people on their separate journeys but always with a backward glance at who might be watching them. Some people help them willingly, some grudgingly, & they never know what response they will receive from family, friends or strangers. The persecution of the Jews didn’t begin in 1939 with the outbreak of war. The gradual process of removing the rights of Jews to education, work & private property was insidious but very purposeful. Many people took advantage of the new laws to exploit their neighbours & take their revenge for suspected or real past injuries. But, there were many others who resisted as much as they could to help friends & neighbours who were persecuted because of their race & religion. It’s important that we don’t forget the past & that we’re forever vigilant so that such persecution should never happen again. Evil on the Wind reminds us of the consequences of forgetting the past.