The One with the German Girl who Looked the Other Way

Barbara Yelin, Irmina (German 2014, US English edition 2017)

Goodreads tells me that I’ve had Irmina on my TBR list since March 2015, when I heard about its publication in French. I’m nothing if not consistent and the title immediately caught my eyes when I saw it among standalone graphic novels at our new library.

Irmina is an ambitious young woman who wants to be free, make her own money and earn enough to be comfortable and respected and generally choose her own life. She has chosen to study at a typist school in London in order to become a translator. She comes from a good family but the money has mostly gone to fund her brothers’ studies. The only problem is that Irmina is 18 in 1934 in Nazi Germany.

The first part of the book is set in London where Irmina studies. She bristles at the prejudices that British people have against Germans, against foreigners in general, and forms an unlikely friendship with a West Indies black young man who is as ambitious as she is, as serious as she is. Their friendship turns into (almost?) love, but the practicalities of their precarious situations (no money, exams, no accommodation) keep throwing obstacles at them. Irmina returns to Nazi Germany, hoping to be back later, only to find out that it’s less and less possible.

The book is impossibly tragic. We see doors closing one after the other on Irmina’s dreams, and herself becoming a hardened, embittered version of her younger self.  The design itself becomes darker and darker. Because she is so ambitious and self-centered and wants to achieve some degree of material comfort, she gets herself into a marriage with a SS and into further compromises that change her and her life more and more. She closes her eyes on what happens around her, because what first is a question of comfort becomes a question of survival. She is not really a nazi (or is she?), she is not really a feminist (but she has dreams of her own), she’s trapped yet she’s not innocent, and the question of her guilt and her responsibility is left completely up to the reader. So many times we get to turn the pages backwards to try and see what else she could have done.

What makes it even more gut-wrenching is that Irmina is inspired by the true story of the author, Barbara Yelin’s own grandmother. The story doesn’t stop in  1945 but in the 1980s when Irmina gets to reconnect with her West Indies friend of a lifetime ago.

It’s so fascinating to see middle-aged Germans revisit the lives of their relatives under the Nazi regime and to present a balanced view of their responsibility in letting the Nazis take over and commit their crimes. It’s not a fun book but it is a very timely book when people wonder what it exactly means to stand up for their values.

2 thoughts on “The One with the German Girl who Looked the Other Way

  1. And clearly a book that shows how easy it is to baby step your way into a position you could never have imagined yourself propounding. I’ve not thought up until now about suggesting a graphic novel as a book group selection but this has made me wonder.

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