In 1944, Hadassah Benjamin feels abandoned by God when she is saved from a firing squad only to be handed over to a new enemy. Pressed into service by SS-Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the transit camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, her Aryan-like looks allow her to hide behind the false identity of Stella Muller. However, in order to survive and maintain her cover as Aric’s secretary, she is forced to stand by as her own people are sent to Auschwitz.
Suspecting her employer is a man of hidden depths and sympathies, Stella cautiously appeals to him on behalf of those in the camp. Aric’s compassion gives her hope even as she risks discovery with every attempt to help the prisoners. When her bravery brings her to the point of the ultimate sacrifice, she faces an excruciating choice. Perhaps God may have brought her to the camp for such a time as this, but how can she save her people when she is unable to save herself?
Publisher and Release Date: Bethany House, March 2014
Time and Setting: WWII Germany
Genre Romantic Historical Fiction, Inspirational Fiction
Heat Level: 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by Jenny Q
For Such a Time is an impressive début. As soon as I saw the premise of the book, I wanted to read it because I was drawn to the idea of a Jewish woman and a Nazi officer in love and wondered if the author would be able to pull off such an unlikely pairing believably.
The answer is a resounding yes.
The story begins with a young Jewish woman, Hadassah – or Stella, as she is officially known thanks to the false papers she carries to confirm she is Aryan – being rescued from death by firing squad in Dachau by a Nazi officer. Colonel Aric von Schmidt is struck by the quiet defiance of the woman he believes was mistakenly interred. A wounded war hero, he has been removed from active duty and given an “honorable” position as commandant of Theresienstadt, a holding camp for Jews bound for Auschwitz. The Red Cross is coming to inspect the Nazi internment camp, and Aric has been given the job of hiding the atrocities committed to convince the Red Cross that the Nazis’ prisoners are being treated humanely. He is in need of a secretary, and Stella’s papers indicate she is educated. She is also beautiful beneath the bruises and skeletal flesh, and he makes it his mission to nurse her back to health.
Hadassah can’t waste much time rejoicing in her salvation at the hands of the enemy. She’s seen Nazi brutality first hand, and she’s seen the mind games they love to play with their prey. Though she seems safe and more cared for than she’s been in years, she can’t afford to let her guard down for a moment, even though the surprisingly compassionate and generous commandant seems determined to get her to do just that. She also has trouble reconciling her new-found luxury and safety with the plight of her fellow Jews in the ghetto next door. At first, she feels lost, set adrift by a God that has abandoned her and her people, but she slowly comes to see that through her clerical duties and her growing influence on Aric, she can help her people, even if only in the smallest of ways. But as her feelings for Aric deepen, creating another conflict in her soul, an embittered Nazi captain plots against them, and the Red Cross visit with the Nazi high brass looms near. Hadassah and Aric will both have to confront their fears and their faith and make decisions that will have dangerous and far-reaching consequences, and they soon find themselves fighting not just for the fate of the Theresienstadt Jews, but for their love and for their own lives.
Now, this is inspirational fiction, which I enjoy reading even though I’m not a very religious person. I like getting insight into the concepts of faith and devotion. And I can’t think of a more likely place than a Nazi concentration camp for people under extreme conditions, faced with unending horrors and degradations, to find or lose faith – or both. Hadassah’s faith and that of her uncle and their people, and to a lesser extent, Aric, are integral to the story, and it felt very natural. But I could have done without the verses from Esther at the beginning of each chapter. They served as spoilers as they showed how Hadassah’s story mirrored Esther’s. I would have preferred a more subtle line drawn between the two, as I prefer to draw my own parallels rather than have them laid out for me. I was also a bit confused as to what the overall point was when it came to Hadassah’s Jewish faith and the Christian Bible she used to hold on to her sanity and rediscover her faith. I couldn’t figure out if she was converting or if she was just exploring the similarities between the two religions. And at the end, that aspect of the story seemed to fall by the wayside.
But aside from those elements, this is a wonderful, powerful story. It’s a story of highs and lows, of stolen moments and secret pride in the face of torture, humiliation, starvation, and cruelty, and in the ever-present face of death. It’s a story of contrasts, how the worst humanity has to offer is still no match for the faith of the best, how hope and joy can rise from the pits of anguish and despair, how the best emotions can rise from the most awful situations, how one person can make a difference.
“I cannot heal the past for you, any more than I can bring back the dead. I can only offer you this.” He brushed his mouth across hers in a light kiss.
“Should that make me feel better?”
“Yes,” he said with a ferocity that surprised them both. “Because in a world suffocated by death, you and I share something very much alive.”
It’s a bittersweet, moving love story, and it is a focal point of the novel. This book really pulled at my heartstrings, urging me to tears at times and keeping me in a state of angst-ridden uncertainty until the last page. Even if many of the major plot points are purely fictional, and even if the daring, dangerous, and uplifting climax may seem improbable, it’s still great storytelling, and a great read, unbearably sad yet wonderfully hopeful at the same time.
For Such a Time is highly recommended for all fans of historical fiction and timeless love stories.