The Girl From The Train by Irma Joubert


I really enjoyed buddy reading 'The Girl From the Train' by Irma Joubert with my good friend, Brittany @eoanthoughts I liked this book, but I didn't love it. In the beginning the relationship between the two main characters, six year old Gretl Schmidt {a Catholic German Jew} and Jakob Kowalski {A fighter with the Polish resistance against Germany and Russia at the close of World War II}, was heartwarming and endearing, despite the circumstances that shrouded their peculiar bond. He cared about Gretl as a loving father would a daughter. However, as these two characters developed, their once innocently platonic relationship transitioned into something more. Because I had such an attachment to their very nurturing relationship when Gretl was a child, it was difficult for me to discern their relationship as a true budding romance when she was of age. It felt unnatural.


As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They intend to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.

Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her in. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.

But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.

Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.

One of the things Brittany pointed out was that this book is a translated work. I wasn't certain when I started reading it, but when Gretl was sent to South Africa by Jakob I realized this in the narrative as well. I also discovered that the book was published in South Africa so English is probably not the author's first language. It was the language of "Afrikaan", the germanic language spoken in South Africa in the story. I think that the upmost care needs to be taken when translating a book. Emotions, thoughts and feelings of the story can be lost as they are interpreted differently in different languages. At times I felt like I was sort of reading robotically. 

The circumstances that bond Gretl and Jakob together stems from Jakob's responsibility in the death of her family. Her family was on a train bound for Auschwitz. Jakob, as a part of the Polish resistance, had to destroy a German troop transport train by planting a bomb on  the tracks. Unbeknownst to him, six year Gretl and her family are on that train and she ended up being the only survivor.

Jakob spent three years caring for Gretl as if she were his own. It was not safe for her as a Catholic German-Jew so he did what is necessary to protect her in an intensely hostile environment. He kept the secret of her ethnicity, background and upbringing and sent her to South Africa to be placed with a Protestant family. She was "chosen" by the Neethlings. I felt this part of Gretl's life was a bit too quintessential. She experienced such atrocities at an early age. She was orphaned and taught to lie in order to keep her true identity a secret. Yet, when she was placed with the Neethlings, she adjusted without any emotional baggage whatsoever. Within months she was referring to Mr. and Mrs. Neethlings as "mommy" and "daddy". I would have liked to see a slow adjustment; a slow recovery from psychological damage. It would have made this period in Gretl's life more interesting as far as her development.

Another aspect I found a bit quixotic was the ease of Gretl from hardcore Catholicism to being forced to become a Protestant. The interweaving of faith is prevalent throughout the story so it's interesting that this abrupt adjusment didn't take a toll on her as well. As Gretl matures into a very strong willed, hard hitting young college woman, Jakob re-enters her life and they are seeing each other with a very different pair of eyes. I wanted to be immersed in their romance, but I couldn't see them beyond the guardian and the guarded.

Like every other Christmas Eve, she went to Grandpa John’s room, because they were the only ones who knew how long the yearning for another person could last, long after everyone else had forgotten.
— The Girl From the Train

The Girl From the Train by Irma Joubert
PAGES: 379
PACING: {3.5/5}


I love historical fiction and I love stories of healing and the ability to move forward in the face of monstrous conditions. This book is reminiscent of 'Salt to the Sea' by Ruta Sepetys. You can check my review for that here and my interview with Ruta here. I liked that the characters held on to their faith no matter where they were or what was taking place. There were just a few elements missing for me that really could've made this the perfect read. For example, learning more about the background of each character. I knew what Jakob was involved in from the very beginning, but other than that I don't feel like I got a sense of who he was. Overall, I liked this book mostly because of the time period. It's a book about survival. Can't go wrong with that. If you're a fan of historical fiction definitely give it a read!

My Rating: {3.8/5}