Book Review – Songbird by Walter Zacharius

This is a rather risque, unusual take on a WWII female espionage agent. Mia is a Polish Jew living with her upper class family when the German occupation begins. Too late to escape, the family ends up in the Ghetto, slowly dying despite the fortune in diamonds they carry.
When the diamonds only bring them betrayal and a train ride to Treblinka*, Mia ecapes and amkes her way to Warsaw, posing as an aryan and surviving by selling cigarettes and running dangerous errands for an underground Jewish gang. Eventually, Mia escapes to America and stays with relatives in Manhattan. But she can’t forget those she has lost – her family now in Auschwitz, her would-be husband Wolf dead on the shores of Switzerland, her teenage crush back in Paris. Determined to at least find out what has happened to her family, Mia leaves her new boyfriend and head back to Europe, first training in England and then being air dropped into France. But the life of a spy is not what Mia has anticipated – forced to work in a S&M brothel and seduce the german officers she despises, Mia find herself losing track of what is real and what is a lie.

Eventually the German forces are driven back, but Mia has been a german consort too long and is nearly killed by a mob of starving locals who overrun the brothel. Snatched away from the boyfriend who is coming to rescue her and left to wander a broken Europe, Mia ends up in Palestine where she lives with the constant echoes of the war.

As you can see, it’s not the typical war memoir. Mia is left broken and desolate – she can’t bare to go back to claim the home she originally fled, refuses to see her aunt and uncle in America and believes the ‘love of her life’ Vinnie is dead. It’s a tragic tale of a young woman who is forced into prostitution, believing that she is helping the war effort and ends up despised by not only those around her, but also by the Allied commanders who put her in that position. It’s a story of desperation, cruelty and death and not one that can be read lightly in an afternoon.

The biggest problem I had with the book (beside the graphic violence. Which isn’t really that graphic, but I’m a wimp when it comes to that kind of thing) is that I felt you could tell it was written by a man. For the first half, when Mia is lamenting her lost life in Paris and hating her parents for being Jewish, the masculine slant doesn’t matter so much. It’s only later on when Mia starts playing piano for german officers before beating them with paddles that the story completely falls into a bondage fantasy – complete with a lesbian snuff scene. The writing carries little emotion with it and given that the story is so desperate and tragic, that Mia is completely cut off from any real feelings rings a little false.

The story also jumps around a lot – this is partially a form to divide the story into three sections (the occupation, life in America and being a spy), but it ends up looking like a stop gap by an author who had run out of credible things to write about. The books ends abruptly, the prelude and epilogue add almost nothing to the story (besides more sex scenes) and what i would have found interesting (what mia did after the war, how she ended up in Palestine, did she get any compensation for the trauma during the war, how did she deal with the memories herself, etc.) is severely lacking. What could have been a very moving story about the lengths a girl is forced to in order to survive the german occupation becomes a rather unrealistic story of murder and sex. There is shock value, especially when Mia is in the ghetto, but I feel this book adds little to the memory of the holocaust.

*Which wasn’t actually built yet in 1940. It’s confusing as to if this is an inaccuracy or if the author has made more time pass in the ghetto than is apparent.

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