BERLIN, 1939: With her blue eyes, blonde hair and smooth creamy skin, Hannah Rosenthal is the physical epitome of all that is truly German – in every way but one. Hannah’s parents, Max and Alma, are German Jews.
Even as an image of Hannah circulates on the cover of a Nazi propaganda magazine, held up as an example of the ultimate Aryan child, the terrified Rosenthals desperately plot their escape from a country that is making clear its contempt for the “impure”, the “stained”.
Seen through 12-year-old Hannah’s eyes, the events of Berlin’s infamous Crystal Night and its aftermath in 1938-39 leave no doubt that war in one form or another is inevitable. Although Max and Alma have retreated from society and now rarely go outside, they are nonetheless tormented, taunted by the tenants who rent parts of the family’s grand heritage building.
There is the slimmest glimmer of hope, however: a mysterious place called “Kuba” is accepting Jewish refugees.
New York, 2014: At the age of 12, Anna Rosen is a full-time carer for her reclusive mother, Ida, a woman who has barely managed to function since her husband Louis’ mysterious disappearance six months before Anna’s birth.
However, the unexpected arrival of an envelope from Havana breathes fresh life into the pair’s existence. Filled with new-found energy, Ida agrees to take Anna to Cuba in search of her father’s only other relative.
While the Rosenthal/Rosen family is fictitious, the flight of Jews from Hamburg aboard SS St Louis did take place in May 1939 – for many, with disastrous consequences when the Cuban authorities suddenly rejected almost all of the ship’s exiled passengers. This little-known piece of history is rekindled beautifully through the experiences of two girls half a century apart but bonded by not only blood but a need to be their parents’ sole support.