Owlcat’s CBR5 review #17 of The German Suitcase by Greg Dinallo

I admit before reading this book, I had a strong bias toward books that are published only online, but the title and synopsis I read of this novel, plus the fact that Greg Dinallo, an author I am/was unfamiliar with, has published hard copy books in the past, I decided to take a chance on reading this.  Being an e-book only, the price was right, too.

The novel is actually two within one, with the primary story beginning when an advertising agent, Stacey Dutton, with a penchant for retrieving discarded goods for personal use, and thus having a goldmine of interesting furnishings, etc., finds a Steinbach suitcase discarded on a sidewalk behind a famous apartment building in New York City.  She retrieves it and immediately begins thinking of how it could be used in an advertising campaign that she and her company are about to embark upon with Steinbach & Company, who have produced high quality suitcases in Germany since the mid-19th century.  When approached with the idea of following the suitcase’s journey, including through the Holocaust, the CEO of Steinbach & Company, Sol Steinbach, is intrigued and excited about this approach. Questions are then asked:  who owned this suitcase? how did it come to be discarded in New York City and why? what is its connection to the Holocaust? and what is inside, as it is locked and things are clearly stored inside it.

After a lot of research, it appears the suitcase belonged to a prominent New York City orthopedist, Dr. Jacob Epstein, a Holocaust survivor as well, and the founder of a famous Jewish foundation that is involved in charity work and honoring, among others, Gentiles who helped save Jews during World War II.  He and his family are approached by the ad agency to engage in telling the story of the suitcase’s travels and in the process, honoring the Holocaust victims and survivors, which he agrees to do.

As the agency and he embark on this process, a young newspaper reporter, looking for the story of a lifetime that might guarantee his job at the newspaper for which he works and which is laying people off – and, incidentally,Stacey Dutton’s boyfriend – begins to suspect and unravel secrets surrounding the suitcase, Dr. Jacob Epstein, and another Holocaust victim (albeit Gentile), Max Klein.  His suspicions arise when he notes that there are two photographs of the same Auschwitz tattooed numbers on the arm of Dr. Epstein, and the two photos clearly show a different style of writing the numbers!

The second story within this novel is the history of the suitcase, but more, the history of the people involved in World War II, including Dr. Epstein himself, Max Klein, and others involved in helping Dr. Epstein and Max’s girlfriend, Eva, escape the SS and Gestapo after having originally been given waivers to practice at the hospital regardless of being Jews, needed because of the lack of German doctors.  The waivers are suddenly revoked, and their stories become a history of the fears, flights, and hiding, ultimately ending in the concentration camps for Dr. Epstein and fortunately for the girlfriend, in Italy, where her parents lived and which has not experienced the complete horrors of the rest of the European Jews.  The suitcase belonged to Max Klein and was given to Dr. Epstein at the beginning of his flight out of Germany and he managed to keep it with him throughout his incarcerations.

Meanwhile, Max Klein, who had to reluctantly become part of the SS to protect his own family, becomes the target of a particularly vengeful military officer because of his involvement with his Jewish girlfriend, Eva. He is sent to Dachau to work as a doctor on the ramps from the cattle cars and make the decisions of which Jewish prisoner went where, to a line that would send them to the gas chamber immediately, or to a line where they would become overworked and underfed slaves and die a slow death.  He tries to avoid this but cannot without jeopardizing his family, and so learns what other “good” German doctors learned at these ramps, how to shut down, make the choices, and then drown the memories in drink and sleep.

It is here at the ramp where he recognizes his best friend, Jake Epstein, who is transferred from Auschwitz to Dachau.  He rescues Jake by telling other doctors at the ramp that he and the accompanying doctors from Auschwitz have been sent to help with the prisoners’ suffering and dying from typhus, since they haven’t enough doctors at Dachau for this, and who cares if Jews die treating other Jews. Both Jake and their mutual doctor friend Hannah contract typhus in the process. From here, their relationship is complicated by various events, including the suspicions of Gestapo and SS officers and, eventually, the Allies arriving at the camp, which results in unrestricted vengeance by prisoners and some of the U.S. troops.

The stories in the present and the past are told alternately in every other chapter and at first, I thought this would be distracting, but I actually liked the style, partly because I didn’t have to wait until later in the book to learn how a specific present-day scene related to the past.  As the book went on, it became easier to figure out what had happened in the past, even before it’s revealed totally, but even so, that did not interfere with either part of the novel.

The characters, both past and present, were totally believable in their actions and reactions.  Those who had to make horrible choices were clearly fraught with ethic dilemmas throughout.  The moral dilemmas were evident in both the past and the present, when people had to choose the lesser of two evils and choose if not making a decision was the right decision to make.  At times, particularly among the modern characters, it was easy to dislike some of them, but then I would find myself realizing that they weren’t all bad and had consciences and were struggling just like most of us would.

The ending was not terribly surprising but it was satisfying, and I would recommend this book.  I also discovered that my bias toward publishing only as an e-book was totally unwarranted and that’s encouraging because it could mean more books for more people at lesser cost.  But I will definitely read some of Dinallo’s other books now.

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