The Pear Tree is a debut novel by K. M. Sandrick, who has written award-winning medical and science articles. This is historical fiction chronicling the destruction of the Czech town of Lidice, which was blamed for harboring assassins of a chief Nazi official. The novel is told from the perspectives of four characters: Chessie Sabel, who was separated from her son and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp; Klaudie Cizek, who was also sent to Ravensbruck; Milan Tichy, who joins the Czech Resistance and searches for his mother; and Ondrej Sabel, a young boy who later becomes Oskar Wolffe.
Ondrej becomes fascinated with Nazi soldiers arriving in Lidice and tries to emulate them. It becomes his ambition to be such a soldier, and when he is taken from his mother, adopted into a German family, and renamed Oskar Wolffe, he refuses to identify with his Czech roots. Even when the Nazis surrender and the war is over, he has no desire to reunite with his mother.
I always felt I learned more history from reading historical novels than textbooks, and I certainly feel that way about this book. I discovered things that weren’t taught in history lessons, including how non-Jews as well as Jews suffered under the Germans. I never knew about the destruction of entire villages and towns, the men murdered and thrown into mass graves, the women sent to workhouses, or the women with Germanic features sent to whorehouses to be impregnated by Nazis in an effort to develop the “Master Race.” Children like Ondrej were put into German homes and indoctrinated in German thinking and lifestyles. Women and children who could not be indoctrinated and were unfit to work were killed in gas vans.
Sandrick gives careful treatment to factual events and people. At the start, she lists historical characters and provides a sentence or two about the roles each plays in events she writes about. Her fictional characters give the reader a sense of what her real characters endured, how they felt, and the ways their lives changed as a result of the Nazi occupation. She occasionally uses Czech and German terms and language to add authenticity and provides a glossary at the story’s conclusion.
The book is sad, but Sandrick doesn’t leave us horrified or grief-stricken. Her story covers the end of the war and tells of new connections made by those who lost family members. Two characters join efforts to learn the outcome of a baby born to a woman at Ravensbruck who died in childbirth, creating the opportunity for a sequel, which I hope Ms. Sandrick will write.
This indie gem is a gripping and historically authentic recounting of the 1942 assassination of Nazi leader Reinhardt Heydrich in Czechoslovakia, the hunting and ruthless destruction of the commandos responsible for the operation, and the bloody aftermath inflicted upon the innocent civilian population of Lidice.
While a number of recent books and movies deal with the events, The Pear Tree is unique in its follow-through. The lives of family members of the Lidice victims are depicted with wrenching emotional relatability as they seek to sift through the remnant evidence of the massacre, and retain what hope they can that some, especially children, may have survived. The book goes well beyond other accounts in covering the aftermath of the assassination and genocide, giving life to the very personal and human perspectives of such characters as firefighter turned resistance fighter Juri Fischer and German policeman Wolfgang Weber. Milan Tichy, a rare young survivor of the Lidice massacre living on the edge of starvation, joins the resistance and uses his newfound power and courage to search for his missing mother. Even the character of Karl Frank, the Nazi officer responsible for the German retaliation, is given a modicum of human conflict as he carries out his hideous acts, reminding us of the uncomfortable fact that these crimes were perhaps most monstrous in that they were not committed by actual monsters.
The novel illustrates that moral ambiguity exists even in the midst of great and unmistakable evil, and that the seeds of societal recovery often lie in small acts of humanity and quiet courage. The best of historical fiction survives fact-checking while bringing to life little-known events and individual human experience. This novel succeeds at all levels. The style is crisp, fast-paced and very readable as it navigates a complex set of events and characters. Highly recommended.