Rather than looking at the broad scope of the Holocaust, with its horrors and statistics, this book focuses on the experience of a single civilian, illuminating part of the answer to the question: How did so many people collude to allow this atrocity? Irmina by Barbara Yelin tells the story of an independent, feisty young German woman in the years before WWII. Studying to be a typist, she wants to be independent, free from the strictures of her family and hometown. In London she meets a handsome young man, Howard, who is studying at Oxford. Their relationship deepens, but because he is black and she is German, they have to fight many prejudices. Eventually Irmina has to return to Germany, although she promises to come back to Howard. Then the war gets in the way, and Irmina finds herself making choices and living a life she would have never imagined only a few years previously.

“Dear Howard, unfortunately things are not progressing as quickly as I hoped. My transfer is delayed from week to week.”

The plot is engaging and the story well-told, but the most interesting thing about this book is how it forces you to confront important philosophical issues and even search your own soul: would you have made different choices than Irmina did? Did she really have a choice, or is she absolved of culpability? How much of the Holocaust did she understand or know about – or was that more a question of choosing Not to know? Irmina began as a idealistic, strong, progressive freethinker, but ended up with none of her dreams nor even her self-respect. The somber, gray palette reminds you of the stressors and influences Irmina felt moved by, but, while her character is sympathetic, she is not guiltless. It is a sad and cautionary tale, well worth the read.