Family History

Irmina by Barbara Yelin. Translated from German by Michael Waaler. SelfMadeHero, 2016. 9781910593103.

Barbara Yelin’s fictional, beautifully drawn graphic novel was inspired by a box of “diaries and letters she found among [her] late grandmother’s things.” The question she’s asking herself throughout by creating it seems to be: Why were ordinary Germans so passive during the horrors they were responsible for during World War II? The answer the book offers never felt like an excuse to me

It opens in London in 1934 with the arrival of Miss Irmina von (something German) in foggy London. Some assume she’s a Jew or a communist fleeing Hitler, but all she wants is a profession and independence. She is the only German in her class at a commercial school for young women and somewhat awkward in social situations, but at a party she hits it off with Henry, a young black man from Barbados studying at Oxford. The two begin spending time together, developing a friendship on the basis of their not quite fitting in. Their relationship is charming, and clearly heading toward more than friendship, but money trouble forces Irmina to return home. The two vow to stay in touch, with Irmina struggling to save enough money to return to England.

I don’t think I’m ruining too much by saying that doesn’t work out as Irmina hopes, and that she soon gives up on returning to England and makes a life in Hitler’s Germany. She doesn’t personally do anything horrific, but she witnesses horrors perpetrated against Jews and does nothing, and clearly knows about what’s happening elsewhere in German territory. She’s such a sympathetic character in the first part of the book I kept hoping for some sort of redemptive action on her part in the second half. I won’t ruin the book by telling you whether that happened or not, but it did remain compelling throughout, all the way through the bit set in the 1980s at the end.

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