The Woman with the Blue Star: A Review
The Woman with the Blue Star
By Pam Jenoff (Park Row)
Pam Jenoff’s latest historical novel set during the Holocaust is a tribute to courage and the Jewish will to survive. Her carefully crafted and well-researched story focuses on the surprising relationship between two young women: Sadie Gault, a Jew who hides from the Nazis with her father and pregnant mother in the sewers of Krakow, Poland; and Ella Stepanek, an affluent Catholic living in the city with her widowed stepmother. As the story of their increasingly intertwined lives unfolds, the book alternates chapter by chapter between the two friends’ perspectives.
Ella is wandering around Krakow and worrying about her ﬁancé, who has joined the Polish Resistance, when she spies Sadie peeking out from a sewer grate. The two eventually begin talking and take a liking to each other. Realizing Sadie and her family’s desperate straits, Ella decides to supply them with food. It is a dangerous decision. If Ella’s despised stepmother, who has taken a fancy to German officers, ﬁnds out about the arrangement, both young women’s lives, and those of the Jews hiding in the sewers, would be at risk.
Jenoff describes the sewers’ dank and squalid conditions, the encroaching rats and the need to keep silent in order to avoid discovery as well as the persistent hunger, thirst and psychological pressures. The Gaults, who are not observant, share their hiding place with the Rosenbergs, an Orthodox Jewish family, and Sadie falls in love with Saul, the son. As the war continues, the two families’ tenacity in such wretched conditions as well as Ella’s efforts to help them are stark reminders that even in dire circumstances, compassion and goodness can sometimes counter despair and hopelessness.
An epilogue to Sadie and Ella’s stories brings the action to the present, offering a few unexpected twists—and a meaningful conclusion to this heartbreaking but uplifting story.
As Jenoff acknowledges in an author’s note, The Woman with the Blue Star, her eighth book, owes a debt to a 30-year-old nonﬁction book, In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall, which describes how Jews hid for months in the ancient sewers of the Ukrainian city, enduring appalling conditions in their will to survive.
Stewart Kampel was a longtime editor at The New York Times.