Cast out by her family in Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa saves a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him in the snowy night into the woods surrounding the tracks. She stumbles upon a German circus, led by the famous Herr Neuhoff, where each performer has their own history and secrets. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition – she must earn her keep, and the circus is short of an aerialist. Noa will be trained by the star trapeze artist, Astrid, but first they must learn to trust one another: as they soar high above the crowds, there are more than just their own lives at stake. And as it becomes clear that even the circus cannot hide from the war forever, loyalty may prove the most dangerous trait of all.
The Nightingale meets Water For Elephants in this powerful story of friendship, love and sacrifice loosely based on several true stories from World War II, uncovered by Jenoff in her research.
About Pam Jenoff
It has been three days since Erich returned unexpectedly early from work to our apartment. I threw myself into his arms. “I’m so glad to see you,” I exclaimed. “Dinner isn’t quite ready yet, but we could have a drink.” He spent so many nights at official dinners or buried in his study with papers. It seemed like forever since we’d shared a quiet evening together.
He did not put his arms around me but remained stiff. “Ingrid,” he said, using my full name and not the pet name he’d given me, “we need to divorce.”
“Divorce?” I wasn’t sure I had ever said the word before. Divorce was something that happened in a movie or a book about rich people. I didn’t know anyone who had ever done it—in my world you married until you died. “Is there another woman?” I croaked, barely able to manage the words. Of course there was not. The passion between us had been unbreakable—until now.
Surprise and pain flashed over his face at the very idea.
“No!” And in that one word I knew exactly the depths of his love and that this awful thing was hurting him. So why would he even say it? “The Reich has ordered all officers with Jewish wives to divorce,” he explained. How many, I wondered, could there possibly be? He pulled out some documents and handed them to me with smooth strong hands. The papers carried a hint of his cologne. There was not even a spot for me to sign, my agreement or disagreement irrelevant—it was fait accompli. “It has been ordered by the Führer,” he adds. His voice was dispassionate, as though describing the day-to-day matters that went on in his department. “There is no choice.”
“We’ll run,” I said, forcing the quaver from my voice. “I can be packed in half an hour.” Improbably I lifted the roast from the table, as though that was the first thing I would take. “Bring the brown suitcase.” But Erich stood stiffly, feet planted. “What is it?”
“My job,” he replied. “People would know I was gone.” He would not go with me. The roast dropped from my hands, plate shattering, the smell of warm meat and gravy wafting sickeningly upward. It was preferable to the rest of the immaculate table, a caricature of the perfect life I thought we’d had. The brown liquid splattered upward against my stockings, staining them.
I jutted my chin defiantly. “Then I shall keep the apartment.”
But he shook his head, reaching into his billfold and emptying the contents into my hands. “You need to go. Now.” Go where? My family was all gone; I did not have papers out of Germany. Still I found my suitcase and packed mechanically, as if going on holiday. I had no idea what to take.
Two hours later when I was packed and ready to go, Erich stood before me in his uniform, so very much like the man I had spied in the audience beyond the lights the day we met. He waited awkwardly as I started for the door, as if seeing out a guest.
I stood in front of him for several seconds, staring up beseechingly, willing his eyes to meet mine. “How can you do this?” I asked. He did not answer. This is not happening, a voice inside me seemed to say. In other circumstances, I would have refused to go. But I had been caught off guard, the wind knocked out of me by an unexpected punch. I was simply too stunned to fight. “Here.” I pulled off my wedding band and held it out. “This isn’t mine anymore.”
Looking down at the ring, his whole face seemed to fall, as if realizing for the first time the finality of what he was doing. I wondered in that moment if he would tear up the papers that decreed our marriage over and say we would face the future together, whatever the odds. He swiped at his eyes.
When his hand moved away the hardness of the “new Erich,” as I called him in the recent months when it had all seemed to change, reappeared. He pushed the ring away and it clattered to the floor. I hurried to pick it up, cheeks stinging from the roughness of his once-gentle touch. “You keep it,” he said. “You can sell it if you need money.” As if the one thing that bound us together meant so little to me. He fled the apartment without looking back and in that moment the years we shared seemed to evaporate and disappear.
Of course I do not know Herr Neuhoff well enough to tell him any of this. “I’ve left Berlin for good,” I say, firmly enough to foreclose further discussion.
Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of several novels, including The Kommandant’s Girl, which was a finalist for both the Quill awards and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal. Pam draws inspiration for her books from her service as a diplomat for the State Department in Europe working on Holocaust issues, and her experiences as the politically-appointed Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon. She also practiced law at a large firm and in-house, and is on the faculty of Rutgers School of Law. Pam received her bachelor’s degree in international affairs from The George Washington University, her master’s degree in history from Cambridge University, and her juris doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children. Find out more about Pan on her website, pamjenoff.com, on Facebook @PamJenoffAuthor, or follow her on Twitter @PamJenoff.