Goodreads: The Auslander
Nazi soldiers trying to reclaim children of German ancestry take Piotr from a Warsaw orphanage and find him a home with prominent Nazi Professor Kaltenbach. Initially Piotr cannot believe his good fortune. He thinks Germany the most advanced country in the world and dreams of becoming an air force pilot. As he witnesses prejudice, experiences restricted freedom, and learns of the horrors perpetrated against innocent humans, however, Piotr realizes he must take a stand, even though it may ultimately cost him his life.
The Auslander stands out among the many books dealing with the Holocaust and Nazi Germany by portraying the complexity of character of those living under the Third Reich. Of course such books usually focus on the heroes of World War II, those who opposed the Nazis, joined the Resistance, hid Jews, and more—and this one is no exception. Few people would relate to the characters if they did not rise above the culture of hate in which they lived. However, The Auslander is special in that it contains an extremely unlikely hero.
Piotr, though he grew up in Poland, has a strong family connection to Germany and he very much wants to go back with the Nazis to a country where he can find a family to love him and that he understands as technologically advanced. At the time he moves in with Professor Kaltenbach, Germany seems to be at its height. They are winning the war, they are making scientific advances, and they have a strong culture shared by museums and libraries—buildings closed in Poland soon after the Germans invaded. Piotr, quite simply, is in love. Furthermore, his adoptive parents are especially kind to him as they have three daughters but no son, and he finds comradeship in the Hitler Youth. He feels like he is a part of something.
Piotr encounters many circumstances that suggest to him that Germany under Hitler is not the paradise it is meant to be, but he initially ignores them. Like many of his neighbors, he wants to avoid trouble and he wants to be happy. He wants to believe that Germany will truly rise again. Eventually evidence of prejudice, human experimentation, and political oppression combine to help Piotr realize the truth, and he transforms into the hero readers expect. However, he remains representative of those many people, not bad people, who followed and accepted the Nazis, even if not actively involved with them.
Various other characters help to flesh out this idea that people who are not necessarily bad can become part of something bad. Professor Kaltenbach, though involved in eugenics, is a kind man and a good father. His daughters, still young girls, eagerly support the war and the Nazi party. They are children, but they have learned hate from their elders. Another character realizes the full extent of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, yet clings desperately to the hope that Hitler may still bring Germany out of the dark days experienced after World War I. These are normal people supporting evil actions. They are not the Nazis readers expected.
I like The Auslander, however, because I do not believe the book particularly meant to impress readers with the idea that good people can do bad things, or to suggest that we all think carefully before fitting others into some sort of caricature or stereotype. These results stem naturally from the subtle characterization. Indeed, the story focuses very much on the plot, which contains a nice amount of action and danger to keep readers engaged, and on the historical detail needed to make the readers feel they have truly entered Germany experiencing World War II. If readers take any lessons from the story, they will be ones not dictated by the author, but taken from the information presented.