When I first met Ellen Oppenheimer she was in her eighties, a spry woman with a contagious smile and a mischievous teenager’s twinkle in her eyes standing beside her now-late husband Marty on a housecall visit that I made on behalf of the computer services company that I own and operate. But many, many years before that, when she was a very young child, she and her family fled the Nazis, literally one step ahead of a brutal killing machine that claimed too many of her relations, marked for death only because of certain strands of DNA that overlap with centuries of irrational hatred directed at Europeans of Jewish descent.
On subsequent visits, we got to know each other better, and she shared with me bits and pieces of the story of how her family cheated death and made it to America. In turn, I told her of my love of history—and the fact that while I was not raised as a Jew, we had in common some of those same Ashkenazi strands of DNA through my great-grandfather, who fled Russia on the heels of a pogrom. I also mentioned my book blog, and she asked that I bookmark the page on the browser of the custom computer they had purchased from me.
It was on a later housecall, as Marty’s health declined, that I detected shadows intruding on Ellen’s characteristic optimism, and the deep concern for him looming behind the stoic face she wore. But all at once her eyes brightened when she announced with visible pride that she had published a book called Flight to Freedom about her childhood escape from the Nazis. She urged me to buy it and to read it, and she genuinely wanted my opinion of her work.
I did not do so.
But she persisted. On later visits, the urging evolved to something of an admonishment. When I would arrive, she always greeted me with a big hug, as if she was more a grandmother than a client, but she was clearly disappointed that I—a book reviewer no less—had not yet read her book. For my part, my resistance was deliberate. I had too many memories of good friends who pestered me to see their bands playing at a local pub, only to discover that they were terrible. I liked Ellen: what if her book was awful? I did not want to take the chance.
Then, during the pandemic, I saw Marty’s obituary. Covid had taken him. Ellen and Marty had moved out of state, but I still had Ellen’s email, so I reached out with condolences. We both had much to say to each other, but in the end, she asked once more: “Have you read my book yet?” So I broke down and ordered it on Amazon, then took it with me on a week-long birthday getaway to an Airbnb.
Flight to Freedom is a thin volume with a simple all-white cover stamped with only title and author. I brought it with me to a comfortable chair in a great room lined with windows that gave breathtaking views to waves lapping the shore in East Lyme, CT. I popped the cap on a cold IPA and cracked the cover of Ellen’s book. Once I began, all my earlier reluctance slipped away: I simply could not stop reading it.
In an extremely well-written account—especially for someone with virtually no literary background—the author transports the reader back to a time when an educated, affluent middle-class German family overnight was set upon a road of potential extermination in the wake of the Nazi rise to power. Few, of course, believed that a barbarity of such enormity could ever come to pass in 1933, when three-year-old Ellen’s father Adolf was seized on a pretext and jailed. But Grete, Ellen’s mother—the true hero of Flight to Freedom—was far more prescient. In a compelling narrative with a pace that never slows down, we follow the brilliant and intrepid Grete as she more than once engineers Adolf’s release from captivity and serves as the indefatigable engine of her family’s escape from the Nazis, first to Paris, and then later, as war erupted, to Marseille and Oran and finally Casablanca—the iconic route of refugees etched on a map that is splashed across the screen in the classic film featuring Bogart and Bergman.
The last leg then was a Portuguese boat that finally delivered them to safety on Staten Island in 1942. In the passages of Flight to Freedom that describe that voyage, the author cannot disguise her disgust at the contempt displayed shipboard for the less fortunate by those who have purchased more expensive berth, when all were Jews who would of course have found a kind of hideous equality in Germany’s death camps. This was, tragically, the fate of much of Ellen’s extended family who did not heed Grete’s warnings of what might befall them, by those who simply could not believe that such horrors could lurk in their future. Throughout the tale, there is a kind of nuance and complexity one might expect to find in a book by a trained academic or a gifted novelist that instead is delightfully on display by a novice author. Her voice and her pen are both strong from start to finish in this powerful and stirring work.
As a reviewer, can I find some flaws? Of course I can. In the narrative, Ellen treats her childhood character simply as a bystander; the story is instead told primarily through Grete’s eyes. As such, the omniscient point of view often serves as vehicle to the chronicle, with observations and emotions the author could not really know for certain. And sometimes, the point of view shifts awkwardly. But these are quibbles. This is a fine book on so many levels, and the author deserves much praise for telling this story and telling it so well!
A few days after I read Flight to Freedom, I dug into my client database to come up with Ellen’s phone number and rang her up. She was, as I anticipated, thrilled that I had finally read the book, and naturally welcomed my positive feedback. After we chatted for a while, I confessed that my only complaint, if it could be called a complaint, was that the child character of Ellen stood mute much of time in the narrative, and I wondered why she did not relate more of her feelings as a key actor in the drama. With a firm voice she told me (and I am paraphrasing here): “Because it is my mother’s story. It was she who saved our lives. She was the hero for our family.”
I think Grete would be proud of her little girl for telling the story this way, so many decades later. And I’m proud to know Ellen, who shared it so beautifully. Buy this book. Read it. It is a story you need to experience, as well.