When you think of the “hidden children of the Holocaust,” the images those words conjure are probably Jewish kids on a freedom-bound train or hidden in a small space in someone’s attic. Rachel Sarai was a very German-looking Jewish child hidden in plain sight of the “stupid Krauts,” as she calls them. But while this 7-year-old girl was certainly a heroine, she was not a child, for Rachel lost her childhood at a very early age.
Author Deborah Rey takes an autobiographical look back at the war years in Holland, but does so through the eyes of a fictional heroine and the book’s namesake. And if Deborah’s early childhood was fractionally as horrific as young Rachel’s, then I have deep sorrow and sympathy for her.
Rachel was subjected to grisly adult images—some of them inhuman—at such an early age you may wonder how she survived to adulthood with any fragment of normalcy. And a fragment it surely must be.
The harrowing story is told in flashbacks from casket-side at the funeral of Rachel’s awful mother figure. She recalls in graphic detail the abuse she endured at the evil step mother’s hands while her father, aunt and her real mother looked helplessly on. When I say graphic detail, I mean the vulgar, mind-numbing, atrocious, grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it sort. During one of the late chapters, I actually threw the book to the floor in disgust. There are parts that are THAT revolting. But a book about the horrors of World War II would be less than honest if it were any less so. A short break and a talk with my spouse later, I was able to resume and finish the novel. It took me more than two weeks.
It was the hardest book I’ve ever read.
Do I recommend it? If you can stomach details of abortion, graphic sex, rape and abuse, then by all means. This book details all of those horrors. But it is by all counts a realistic picture of one survivor’s hell…and a survivor’s tale it is. The war ends when Rachel is just seven, but long after she’s lost her childhood for obvious reasons. She tells of the arduous journey towards forgiveness and moving past the deep emotional wounds that only family can inflict. She finds peace in the arms of a beloved aunt and her second husband Jonathan. She also learns the truth about her birth mother, but not from any of the people who should have told her.
I herald Rachel a heroine, but not just because she survives it all. She was actively involved in the Dutch Resistance movement, helping keep her father and many other Jews safe from the Nazis. Leading fugitives at night through the woods and moors to a Swedish safehouse, young Rachel saves countless Jewish lives. Much of her success is due to the fact that she remains hidden in plain sight under long golden hair and behind brilliant green eyes. No one ever suspects her as a Jew and she refuses to wear a yellow star. She avoids danger every time she encounters a German soldier by flashing an innocent smile and skipping past as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Little did the Nazis know that in her wooden clogs or hidden beneath layers of clothing, she was transporting secrets or weapons to various checkpoints and hideouts within the Dutch Resistance.
Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard is not for the faint of heart. The language is vulgar and some of the scenes depicted are even worse. It is brutally honest, though, intriguing and moving. By the end, I had given up on fighting back tears. It is sure to move you, too, if it doesn’t sicken you first.