The setting is Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, 1933. We follow along with the Weissensteiner family on an epic journey, from the pre-WWII years to the end of the war, with an epilogue culminating during the fall of the Berlin wall. They are not an insular family, and have a great many friends and acquaintances that move in and out of the story line.
Greta and her family are Jewish, but this is decidedly not another rendition of the holocaust. The novel illustrates how the destruction of war rained down on both Jews and non-Jews, who were part of the same community, often got along quite well and even intermarried. We learn that, at least in Bratislava, many non-Jews detested the Nazi’s, and quietly tried to hide a Jewish friend or two, if they could manage without being discovered. Through no fault of their own, they too suffered terrible hardships, hunger and loss of property, sickness and death.
I think we readers are accustomed to accounts of WWII that portray the Jews as victims, and the non-Jews as either perpetrators or uninterested people out to save their own skins, but in the Weissensteiners there is no sharp line of demarcation. Instead, we see how ordinary people were swept up in the same storm of war and tossed about by fate. Through a bit of luck, some narrowly escape destruction, only to perish later on through one mistaken move, or an arbitrary unlucky event.
The families and extended families we meet are quite large, so the novel is chock full of people. We learn many details about their lives, their thoughts and feelings, their relationships, all through the voice of an omniscient narrator. There are many historical accounts that for me, read like a history book; sometimes the narration continues along this vein when describing the intimate details of people’s lives. These long periods of narration often felt rather distant, sounding like a reporter summing up the facts.
However, throughout some chapters there was lively dialogue that made you feel as if you were traveling along with real people, evoking the emotional connection that I especially enjoy in any novel. During these times I felt anger and fear, anxiety and relief. I also came away feeling that I learned something of the history and people of the region. All in all, I strongly recommend that you read The Luck of the Weissensteiners.