“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” Elie Wiesel said, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” This has rarely been truer than in Anna Funder’s “All That I Am,” a tale of unrelenting courage among young German revolutionaries in the 1930s. Funder is no stranger to the topic of World War II—she also wrote “Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall”—and in her first work of fiction, she weaves together the half-invented, half-truthful stories of real-life activists to create a gripping tale of political struggles, breathless escapes, and surprising compassion.
The novel alternates between the viewpoints of Ernst Toller, celebrated poet, playwright, and activist, and Ruth Becker, the cousin of Dora Fabian, the novel’s protagonist. This innovative structure allows Funder to move back and forth in time: As elderly Ernst and Ruth revisit the ghosts of their respective pasts, they flash back to the days of their resistance to the Nazi regime in the 1930s. Both narrators remain displaced from their once-beloved Germany—Ernst lives at the Mayflower Hotel in New York City, where he is dictating a novel on his life to his secretary Clara, while Ruth has found a home in Australia. The creation of a new life in solitude and the painful reminders of a life once lived and friends long lost all take immense tolls on both characters. “In his presence, I am returned to my core self,” says Ruth after receiving Ernst’s autobiography. “All my wry defenses, my hard-won caustic shell, are as nothing. I was once so open to the world it hurts.” Through Ernst’s dictated memoir and Ruth’s recollections, Funder forms a coherent story that is both action-packed and sobering.
At the center of both Ernst and Ruth’s memories lies Dora, a charismatic, fearless, and independent activist. Dora is far from an average woman: She is the essence of righteousness and the sole reason that Ruth and Ernst hold onto hope throughout their trials. Through her work ethic and constant desire to help her friends in need, Funder imagines Dora as the spirit of a true revolutionary who eventually brings all her compatriots—Ernst, Ruth, and others—into her carefully planned and exceptionally action-filled life. “Dora had a sense of purpose so profound that when I was with her it was impossible to feel lost,” Ernst reflects. “It stung a little, but I was grateful to be saved by her. At least half of what we call hope, I believe, is simply the sense that something can be done.” This hope provides the ultimate incentive for these rogue intellectuals throughout the novel, yet Funder constantly reminds the reader of the pain of dreams shattered as the characters face multiple dangers while being hunted down by the ruthless Nazi regime.
These trials are both physical and emotional, and as the Ernst-Ruth faction moves from country to country, their friends and comrades often die or suddenly leave, which creates a constant feeling of terror that seems to seep through the very walls of their hideouts. While resting for a short time in England, the characters struggle both with trying to conform to a culture that is not their own and also facing the challenge of notifying the English government of the imminent threat of war. Their warning is tragically unheeded. Funder, whose characters recall these events that ocurred decades ago, fills the novel with frustration and desperation—and since the reader knows the outcome of Britain’s hesitance to enter the war, these emotions are all the more poignant.
While the friends continue their activist work outside of Germany, Ruth and her journalist husband Hans Wesemann struggle to maintain a trusting relationship. Hans lashes out against the frustrations of his life as a refugee, while Ernst and Dora advance with trepidation through an emerging love affair. The persistent threat of being apprehended by the Nazi government creates tensions that exacerbate the mental states of the four friends. Dora and Ruth must bear the weight of an emotional onslaught: Ernst sinks into a deep depression, and Hans becomes more and more elusive and withdrawn. “I thought that he would get through this, and would come back to me,” bemoans Dora of Hans, “but the price of letting him go was that my own life began to seem second-rate to me, as if I were an understudy in it.” With eloquent musings like this, Funder creates a fabric of emotional frailty apparent in each character; their long, tireless hours of work mask the stress and desperation that follow the losing side of a political struggle as they try to bring down the growing strength of the Nazi regime.
Although the novel is a partially fictitious account of a bleak period of history, Funder manages to avoid losing connections with her characters. “All That I Am” is first and foremost a love story and intertwines the political desires of a group of vehement intellectuals with the emotional rollercoaster of romantic attachment. It is a story that demonstrates the strength of old friendships and the unrelenting pain of hazy memories. By standing resolute in the face of adversity, Funder’s characters manifest a concrete will for survival and truth that speaks to the greater population of individuals who witnessed struggles similar to the ones outlined in the novel. The novel is a beautifully wrought attempt to assuage the pains of history for both the characters and the reader, a fictitious legacy that documents the events of these German refugees in brutal and compassionate clarity.
—Staff writer Jihyun Ro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.