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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Ottawa chapter.

This was perhaps my most heartbreaking read yet. 

The Last Train to London uncovers a lesser-known yet nonetheless important event in pre-World War II European history. It is loosely based on the true story of how Geertruida Wijsmuller, affectionately nicknamed Tante Truus, became an unsung Holocaust hero; she dedicated her life to bringing Jewish children, most of them orphans, out of Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in the Kindertransport operation (german for “children’s transport”) that took place from 1938 to 1939. At the same time, a huge part of the story is fiction as it talks about the impact Tante Truus has on two Austrian teenagers, both imaginary characters: Stephan Neuman, the son of a wealthy Jewish family; and Žofie-Helene Perger, the daughter of a Christian journalist who heads a local anti-Nazi newspaper. 

Rather than focusing on a standard plot progression, it hones in on the emotional development of the characters. I found it particularly heartbreaking witnessing how one’s childhood innocence can be shattered due to traumatic events. In the beginning, Stephan is a carefree fifteen-year-old boy with a comfortable home life and dreams of being a playwright. Towards the end, however, the reader watches him become a saddened eighteen-year-old who is forced to become the man of the family and somewhat of a fatherly figure to his little brother as everything they have ever known crumbles at their feet. It is both devastating and hopeful to see how the bond between the two brothers transforms due to the trauma they endure. It can certainly hit close to home for those of us who are older siblings; in any situation, we want to protect our siblings at all costs, even if we’re feeling scared or worried ourselves. 

In these tumultuous times, Žofie-Helene’s loyalty to Stephan remains unfaltering. Despite Stephan’s shame for being degraded and her grandfather’s fear that their family will be punished for helping Jewish people when it’s forbidden, she remains by his side from the beginning to the end. She is admired for her incredible bravery, as well as her empathy and emotional intelligence, which allows her to be a source of comfort for Stephan and his little brother. 

Truus’ relationship with and impact on Stephan and Žofie-Helene is reminiscent of maternal comfort characters that our generation grew up with, like Miss Honey in Matilda or Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter franchise. Just like both of these characters, Truus is affectionate and comforting, treating the motherless Jewish children she rescues as her own, which is very much evident in her interactions with both of them. At the same time, she is a force to be reckoned with; she will do anything for these children and refuses to let anything stand in her way – even Adolf Eichmann, who was arguably one of the most frightening men in Germany during that time. 

What also makes this story stand out is that it’s rich with detail, describing everything under the sun from Stephan’s family chocolate business, their enormous wealth, to the complex logistics of transporting children across borders without the proper documentation. Although the level of detail can often make the story progress slower than some readers would like, it serves a valuable purpose of touching the reader’s heart. I was impressed by the end when the characters finally crossed paths, because weaving together all those complex details is not an easy feat. It also made me feel more emotionally attached to the characters because the details made it feel like I knew their lives in a more intimate way. 

Despite the contrast to other historical novels I’ve read, there is something familiar about this book that truly solidified my love for historical fiction. It goes beyond the work of history textbooks and shows the role of humanity during dark, unprecedented times. If you want to add one more book to your reading list, let it be this one. 

Nina Popovic is a fourth-year student majoring in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, and minoring in Communications at the University of Ottawa.