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“The Orphan’s Tale” by Pam Jenoff is a poignant and compelling historical novel set in Europe. It tells of a complicated friendship of two women, Ingrid and Noa, and their story of the fight for survival against incredible odds during World War II.
Ingrid grew up in a German-Jewish circus family in Darmstadt, Germany. In 1934 she married Erich, a German officer, and moved to Berlin. As the war and the Holocaust escalate, her husband’s loyalty to the Reich causes an abrupt break. When she returns to Darmstadt, she discovers that her family, circus proprietors, has disappeared. She is a trained trapeze artist who used to travel with her father’s circus.
Another German circus clan, Circus Neuhoff*, a rival of her family’s circus, takes 28-year-old Ingrid in and Herr Neuhoff, the patriarch, gives her the stage name Astrid as well as false identity papers. Noa, a Dutch teenager, has become pregnant by a German soldier and has been thrown out of the house by her father. After leaving a German unwed mothers’ home where her infant has been taken away, either for the Lebensborn adoption program or worse, Noa is working in a railroad station in the Netherlands.
One night Noa spies a boxcar full of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp. Noa impulsively grabs one who resembles her own child, eventually naming him Theo. Astrid and Noa alternate as the narrators. By chance, they are also rescued by Neuhoff. He offers safety in the circus provided Noa can learn the trapeze and perform as an aerialist so as not to look suspicious. Astrid will be her partner and trainer. Initially adversaries, the two women struggle to develop the mutual trust required by their risky circus act and personal circumstances. As the war rages, these two women get to know each other and, slowly, to trust each other.
Circus Neuhoff eventually travels to a refuge in occupied France. They are hounded by the S.S, who visit the circus, and the headmaster and the owner can no longer bribe their way out.
The “Orphan’s Tale” is an inspiring story of loyalty and trust. The author did research in the archives of Yad Vashem in Israel about the actual Jewish circus dynasties as well as the “unknown children in that boxcar.”
*The actual real-life owners of the German circus were Adolf Althoff and his wife. They directed the well-known Althoff circus during World War II. The circus traveled throughout Europe. They were fully aware of the dangers of hiding Jews. Fortunately, Mr. Althoff had contacts in many cities who generally warned him of impending searches by the Nazis. On Jan. 2, 1995, Yad Vashem recognized Adolf and Maria Althoff as Righteous Among the nations – the highest honor bestowed upon a Gentile by the state of Israel.