“When eighteen-year-old Ruth Becker visits her cousin Dora in Munich in 1923, she meets the love of her life, the dashing young journalist Hans Wesemann, and eagerly joins in the heady activities of the militant political Left in Germany. Ten years later, Ruth and Hans are married and living in Weimar Berlin when Hitler is elected chancellor of Germany. Together with Dora and her lover, Ernst Toller, the celebrated poet and self-doubting revolutionary, the four become hunted outlaws overnight and are forced to flee to London. Inspired by the fearless Dora to breathtaking acts of courage, the friends risk betrayal and deceit as they dedicate themselves to a dangerous mission: to inform the British government of the very real Nazi threat to which it remains willfully blind. All That I Am is the heartbreaking story of these extraordinary people, who discover that Hitler’s reach extends much further than they had thought.”
Thoughts: Much has been made of the German people’s involvement in Hitler’s wartime activities, and many questions have been raised and answered about that involvement being voluntary or forced through coercion and fear. What sets All That I Am apart is not only the fact that Ms. Funder is writing about people who actually existed, she shines the spotlight on those who protested and tried to fight Hitler’s increasing tyranny. They were the first ones forced to seek asylum as Hitler sought to silence their voices quickly and absolutely. They were the ones who so desperately tried to open the eyes of the West to what was truly occurring in Germany. Theirs is a story that is relatively unknown until now.
All That I Am is a flashback within a flashback, which can lead to more than a little uncertainty as the reader struggles to keep track of the jumps in time and switching between characters. Ruth Becker flashes back to her own set of memories, while at the same time she is reading the memoirs of Ernst Toller, who is also remembering the same time period. The first fifty pages or so do require careful reading and close attention to the narrators.
While Ruth and Ernst move in largely separate circles, eventually their stories do interconnect, largely through their love for Dora – a force entirely all her own. While Ernst attempts to balance his fame with his civic duty and Ruth struggles with a husband who is not acclimating to life as an exile very well, Dora is the motivating force behind their mission to inform. Her commitment is unwavering, even at tremendous sacrifice to her health and happiness. While Ruth and Ernst are the main narrators, Dora is the true heart of the novel. Even though All That I Am is a fictionalized account of their pre-war actions, the fact remains that Ernst Toller, Ruth Becker, Hans Wesemann, and Dora Fabian did exist and did try to raise awareness of Hitler’s true aims behind his rise to power. Ms. Funder does a remarkable job balancing the fact from the fiction, staying as true as possible to the known details of this period in their lives.
All That I Am is a breathtaking tribute to those who risked everything, including their lives, for their country. The fate of the main four characters, as well as their entire group, is a profound example of everything that the West did wrong in the months and years before World War II. From a failure to ignore the reports from Germans forced to flee for their lives to an inability or unwillingness to protect these same exiles from harm, so much could have been avoided had the Western powers just listened and believed. One can do nothing but admire the courage and fortitude it took for this little band of left-wing exiles to fight to raise awareness of a pending war against insurmountable odds and appreciate Ms. Funder all the more for highlighting these courageous people and their efforts.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association for my review copy!