“Absolutely heartbreaking… Gripped me from the first page and I read it in one sitting!… Will stay with me for a long time.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
1942, Czechoslovakia: Gently, she lowered the sleeping infant, swaddled in blankets, down into the tiny, dark space and carefully replaced the wooden floorboards. As she stepped back, she heard the slamming of doors, voices shouting in German and the sound of dogs beginning to bark… When the Gestapo arrive to arrest Magda’s kind, Jewish employers—clever Dr Tauber and his talented wife—she has only moments to save their tiny new-born son Samuel by placing him in a makeshift hiding place beneath the floor in her room. With the Taubers gone, their alpine villa is taken over by a brutal Nazi commander, who is determined to hunt down Resistance fighters in the mountains. Trapped in the house, Magda manages to get Samuel into hiding with her friends in the Resistance. Magda supports the cause, passing coded messages about the commander and smuggling much-needed supplies to their secret network. Magda is playing a dangerous game and it isn’t only her life on the line. And she will need to risk more than she ever thought possible to keep Samuel safe... A heart-breaking wartime epic of love, bravery, survival and one young woman’s exceptional courage, set against the backdrop of wild and beautiful forests and mountains. Perfect for fans of My Name is Eva, The Alice Network and The German Midwife, this novel will stay with you long after you have turned the final page. Previously published as Magda’s Mark, this edition has substantial editorial changes. Praise for The Girl from the Mountains : “ Fantastic!!! There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t gripped!... My heart really ached… Incredibly gripping! ” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ Kept me up all night and I finished this book with tears in my eyes after I read the ending!... Powerful, gripping… Unputdownable… Five stars! ” Tropical Girl Reads Books, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ A gripping story that will stay with you long after you have put it down… I highly recommend.” NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ I could barely put down the book. I smiled, cried… I recommend it to all history lovers!” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ What a story!... I loved the ending! ” NetGalley reviewer “ Grab a few tissues… Such a powerful story you must read.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ I loved Magda… A unique and gripping novel. It was hard to put it down.” NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ Gripping read… Magda is a compelling heroine… The authenticity of time and place was captured so well.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ Wonderful intense read… So vivid you will feel you are there. I could not put this story down. I loved the book.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ Riveting, intense… From the very beginning you feel like you're amidst the chaos, the heartbreak, the despair but also the incredible bravery and spirit of the people in WWII.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Release date: February 3, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Girl from the Mountains
At the iron gate, Magda looked back at Villa Liška. The high curved windows of the dining room and sitting room were dark. The house may as well be empty inside. The yellow limestone facade had lost its cheeriness a year ago. The house remained well maintained, but the spirit was so long gone that it was hard to believe she had once felt safe and loved in this mansion.
Magda lifted the latch, pushed the gate open, and crossed the street to the granary. She was less likely to be noticed if she passed the two mines. From there, she veered toward town. The clock tower rose against a gray flannel sky. Off the Ohře and Elbe rivers, the breeze carried the smell of damp laundry and stirred tiny, frozen pellets into whirlpools of ice. Not hail nor rain but snow. Again.
“April, April,” Walter had chanted to her, “der weiß nicht was er will.” April, April, it knows not what it wants. He had stroked the birthmark on her left cheek, the blemish to which she had always accredited her loneliness, and switched from German to Czech. “Do you know what you want, Magdalena?”
At the time, she had been certain the answer was Walter. She wanted Walter, with his attentions, his confidence, and his teasing. But she had been too shy to utter the words. Instead she’d fled behind the service door only to peer back at him through the lead-glass window. He stood there for quite some time before turning away.
Now, she wanted anything but Walter. Four years into the occupation—since the terror had taken seed and grown into a strangling weed—Magda yearned to wrap her arms around something entirely different.
It took her thirty minutes to reach the walls that marked Litoměřice’s old town. She passed through the castle gate, where Swastika-stamped flags snapped salutes to the wind. Years ago, when she had arrived in Litoměřice to look for work, she’d swum against a current of fleeing Czechs and Slovaks. Now, the dismal reminders of a displaced Bohemia lay beneath a red, black and white sheen. Those ruby-red flags were stationed throughout the main square too, draped along the sides of the town hall, sticking out beneath the clock tower, and stretched across the narrow streets. Triangular banners dangled over passages as if it were carnival. In the middle of these streamers, a portrait of the Führer reminded her that survival depended on loyalty and obedience to the regime. One misstep, and the Gestapo could pick her up.
Litoměřice’s ornamentations were still beneath it all: the gas lanterns—electric for decades—lined the cobblestoned roads or hung from an oriel. The pastry shops now featured a slice of apple strudel alongside a few traditional cylinders of cinnamon trdelníky and poppy-seed rolls. But the flower-stitched aprons and bell-shaped krojová skirts in a dressmaker’s shop looked faded and unwanted.
The familiar bus puttered to a stop near the baroque water fountain next to the oak tree. Military vehicles and trucks peppered the square. The signs on the buildings still had Czech names. The government offices had German.
Magda ducked into the bakery and stood in line behind a policeman, her heart hammering. She automatically pressed the edge of her headscarf over the ruby map on her left cheek. It was the oldest of her disfigurements, one of three that made her not only identifiable but immediately suspect. The two scars on her face were, after all, the marks of defiance.
As the policeman added his purchase to a jute bag, the woman behind the counter gave Magda a quick look. The less you try to hide yourself, the less they’ll notice you.
Magda forced her hand to drop. The woman waited until the policeman had left before taking Magda’s ration card and handed her the two extra loaves of rye bread in return.
“Will you be lighting a candle today?” she asked.
The woman added a roll into Magda’s bag.
Magda stepped out of the bakery, the bag of bread clutched in her fist. When she reached St. Stephen’s, she checked once more to make sure she had not been followed. She slipped her hand into her pocket and touched her talisman. Certain that nobody paid any attention to her in the streets, she made the sign of the cross and entered the church through the side. An older woman rocked back and forth as she prayed, her prayer beads knocking softly. A man Magda did not recognize lit a candle. She stepped into a pew, kneeled, and made the sign of the cross, her mind far too distracted to form the simplest of prayers beyond, “Dear God, be merciful. Protect us.”
It was a long time before the strangers left. Magda rose and went to the door that led to the crypts below. She rapped twice in quick succession, paused, and tapped three more times. On the other side, the iron bolt scraped across the heavy wooden door. As soon as it was opened wide enough, Magda slipped through.
When the German motorcade rolled past Voštiny opposite the Elbe River, Magda and her mother were singing “Meadows Green” and threshing the wheat. Their song dissipated like smoke into the air. Magda’s mother straightened, one hand on her headscarf, like a gesture of disbelief. No tanks. No marching soldiers. Only those gray-green trucks and black automobiles on the horizon.
The procession moved on south, growing smaller in size but larger in meaning. When she looked toward the fields, Magda saw her father and her two brothers also pausing, one at a time, to witness the Germans chalking off the Sudetenland demarcation with their exhaust fumes. The Nováks’ farm lay within it.
Magda’s father faced the cottage and an entire exchange silently took place between her parents.
Then the rumors are true, her father said with just the simple lift of his head.
Her mother pursed her lips. What now?
Magda’s father sliced the sickle through the stalks. We finish the wheat.
And with that, Magda, her two brothers, and her parents went back to work.
Later, at midday, urgent knocking rattled their door. Everyone in the house froze except Magda. She turned slowly around in the room, as if this was to be the last scene she would remember. Her father held the edge of the table. Her mother rose from her chair. She was straight and proud and beautiful with an open face, the kindest light-brown eyes, and full lips. Magda’s brothers, Bohdan and Matěj, sat rigid in their chairs. Each of their wives held a child. And Magda’s grandparents sat so close to each other on the bench against the oven that they might as well have been in each other’s laps.
The knocking came more insistently, and this time they stirred into action. Magda’s father pushed himself from the table and left the room. The rest were in various stages of attempting to look normal. A moment later, her father returned with the village heads. With baffling lightness, he offered them Becherbitter as if it were Christmas, and shared a joke about a cow and a farmer—Magda was not paying attention to the story or the punchline that then made them laugh so.
The Sudetenland, the village wise men announced after the first schnapps, was now part of the Third Reich. Hitler was protecting his people. And that was why no other country called foul for breaching the treaty.
“But we will not go to war,” one village elder said, “as we may have feared.”
“Imagine that,” Magda’s father said abruptly. It was the tone he used when angry.
Her brothers, however, visibly relaxed.
That night, before she went to bed, and while her brothers and father were making their rounds in the village, gathering information like hay, Magda asked her mother to play the guitar.
“I don’t much feel like it,” her mother said.
Magda hugged her tightly. Her mother clutched her as if Magda were floating away. Upstairs, the grandparents’ bed creaked, and the house settled around them.
“You remember,” her mother said, releasing her, “how you once asked me why you are the youngest?”
“Because you finally had a girl, you said.”
“Because there is bad luck in even numbers. I needed a third child so that nothing bad would ever happen to any of you.”
A small comfort, superstitions. Her grandmother believed in them as much as she believed in praying. And because it was Magda’s mother who was reaching for those superstitions, Magda hardly slept that night.
Shortly afterwards, in early October, Bohdan and Matěj ran back from the fields almost as soon as they had left the cottage. Motorbikes, a motorcade, the tanks, and the foot soldiers marched through Voštiny in the foggy dawn. A new protectorate was established, and the mayor was arrested for being a suspected Communist sympathizer, and his wife for being a registered one.
Two days later, Magda’s father received notice to report to the town hall. Bohdan and Matěj exchanged nervous glances. Magda only watched, already dreading what would unfold.
“They’ll want the rifles,” Bohdan said as he reached for one of the breakfast buns. His wife bounced their young son on her knee and looked away.
Magda’s father chewed on. Her grandfather groaned softly.
“We should have something for them to confiscate to make the Nazi swine feel accomplished,” Matěj said, always checking with Bohdan.
Their father leaned on his elbows. “You each have a rifle. Each registered.”
“And each a revolver,” Bohdan said. “Black market. But…”
Their father’s eyes shifted to their mother, then to their grandfather. The slightest nod from both.
Father rose from his breakfast, still chewing, wiped his mouth with his hand and stalked to the dresser on the farthest wall. He returned to the table, lay one revolver at each son’s elbow, and sat back down to his breakfast.
These were the weapons they had argued about quite some time ago. Bohdan had said that he was certain the troubles between the Czechs and Slovaks with Germany would not be settled peacefully. They had to protect themselves, Matěj had stressed. Their father had then ordered both of them to get rid of the revolvers. Now, here they were.
The boys moved in unison. They picked up the guns, and walked out of the cottage. Grandmother’s chin wagged and she made anxious, smacking noises. Father suddenly rose and the rest of them—one by one—drifted to the doorway of the cottage and into the yard.
Bohdan and Matěj were at the apple tree out back, carefully cutting out a square of earth. Their father came out of the workshop with a metal box, bent down and put the two revolvers in before lifting the grass and lowering the box into the earth.
Magda felt movement behind her and turned to see her mother go back inside. She returned with the guitar, sat on the bench beneath the eaves and hummed softly as she strummed. It was Magda’s favorite lullaby.
Her sisters-in-law carried their children back into the house. Magda watched as her father and brothers hacked at the bottom of the square patch of earth and replaced it carefully. They then filled in the cracks with earth, ripped up some grass and scattered it over the wound in the ground.
Matěj and Bohdan nudged past her with affectionate bumps though their teasing was tainted by the grim set of their mouths.
Magda’s father clapped her shoulder. “Southeast root. When it’s time, you know where they are.”
The guitar was silent.
Her father harnessed Princ and left the farm shortly afterwards, and returned that afternoon in the back of a truck and no sign of the horse. His head hung low over his folded hands as five Wehrmacht soldiers jumped down from the back and positioned themselves in the yard. Two young women in blond braids, white blouses, black cravats and black skirts climbed out of the second vehicle with clipboards in hand. A lieutenant stepped out after them.
One of the Wehrmacht eyed Magda’s face, then turned away. Matěj and Bohdan bristled next to her.
Her mother called to her father—who was still in the truck—but he did not lift his head. Magda understood why. Whatever they had done to him, he did not want his wife to see.
The lieutenant addressed the rest of the family and told them that they were there to confiscate weapons and that their possessions, their cottage and the farm were now Third Reich property. The documents were in German, stamped and signed with the names of officials none of the Nováks knew.
“Requisitioned for whom?” Bohdan snapped.
The lieutenant scowled at her brother as if he were an idiot. “For a German family.”
The officer’s glance landed somewhere inside, just beyond the door. He walked in and returned with Mother’s guitar. He examined it briefly, shook it by the neck, as if he were holding a chicken and checking to see whether it was dead. He walked it over to one of the young women with the clipboard. She made a note and he handed it to one of the Wehrmacht soldiers, who promptly put it into the lieutenant’s vehicle.
He turned back to the family. “You have two hours to pack your things and find new accommodations, but the farm will be vacated.”
“Where should we go?” Magda’s mother protested.
The lieutenant looked confused or annoyed and shook his head. “How should I know? You Slavs are the ones who have a thousand relatives to every family. Go to one of them.”
Bohdan and Matěj moved to their wives but the officer stopped them.
“Not you. You two are expected at headquarters. We need workers in Germany, and we need soldiers. We’ll figure out which it will be.”
When they brought Magda’s father down from the truck, they refilled it with her brothers, the two registered rifles, Mother’s china and her one crystal vase, the grandparents’ books and Father’s mandolin. The horse, like their house, had also been requisitioned, the cows were locked in the stable. Their father was to hand over the keys. Magda never had the chance to dig up the revolvers. That time never came.
Lidice was a “blip” on the Nazi’s radar. That was how Magda’s father put it. Nobody would bother to look for them there, a small village between Prague and Litoměřice. Shortly afterwards, the family—her grandparents, her parents, she, and her two sisters-in-law, and their children—were piled on top of one another in Magda’s great-aunt’s home. Rationing was put into effect not long after. Winter was coming. They had one sow for nine hungry mouths.
The house was damp and the winter wicked. Even before Christmas, it was clear that the family could not go on like this. Bohdan’s wife spoke of family in Hungary. Matěj’s wife left to a cousin’s back north, taking their son with her.
“Magda could go to town,” her great-aunt said one night. “Find work. Get her through the winter.”
Mother made one little noise in the back of her throat. Like a sob. Or a hiccup.
Magda studied her fingernails. Her great-aunt meant “get her through the war.” She had one good dress.
The night before she was to leave, her mother gave her a necklace with a cross. It was a thin gold chain with a simple gold cross, the chain only big enough to put around perhaps Magda’s wrist.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Your godmother gave this to you for your baptism. I have all of your necklaces—Bohdan’s, Matěj’s, and yours. Take yours. Maybe it will be worth something, just in case. And otherwise, Magda, perhaps it will bring you comfort. Something of home.”
Her mother slipped it into a small pouch and pulled the strings together before laying it in her hand, then she scooped Magda to her. In the next bed, Grandmother coughed and muttered.
The next day, Magda veered off the main road to Litoměřice and followed the road to Voštiny. She slowly walked up the road to their farm, the fields dusted with snow, the Elbe sluggish in the cold. A crow cawed and grazed the winter sky. Something rustled in the dried stalks along the side of the road and Magda jumped as a young fox dashed out only a few meters before her. It stopped, its yellow eyes trained on Magda, before turning away and slinking off into the field across the road. A distant whirring sounded. Magda followed the road up to the ridge where the top flattened into a long plateau, with the blue-gray mountains in the background.
The sound grew louder and she had to cover her ears as a plane buzzed above her from the west. Leaflets rained down upon her. She hurried to the top of the road and halted at the sight of the people. People with carts, people on foot, on bicycles, were heading towards her—eastwards—with their belongings piled and tied precariously atop anything—the roof of a vehicle, onto the carts, on bicycle baskets. The planes continued to come. The mass soon enveloped her and they ignored her, nobody tried to turn her around, as she swam against the current of refugees.
“Where are you going?” she cried to random strangers.
But she knew. The rump of Czechoslovakia was not occupied. And Hungary remained free of Nazis. Magda picked up a leaflet.
“This is now the German Reich,” she read. Followed by a list of rules—all Jews and Communists were to report to the new protectorate, curfew was at seven o’clock, all weapons were to be turned in to the village headquarters, and so on. Things she already knew. Things she had already experienced.
She folded the piece of paper and put it in her pocket.
“Survive,” her mother had said. “That’s all—just survive. Do what they want, and at some point this will be over. But live, Daughter.”
Ahead of her was the Nováks’ farm. Hidden by the windbreak in the field behind the cottage, Magda watched three young children playing a game in the yard. A man was leading Princ into the stable. A dark-haired woman stood, hands on her hips, surveying the apple tree with an air of authority. Another two boys and a man were unloading a wagon filled with furniture.
“Stay where you are safe,” her father had said. “When this is all over, we’ll meet back at the farm.”
She tried to picture that, the Nováks confronting this transplanted family. All Magda wanted was to have her family back together. She would work where she could in Litoměřice, long enough to outlive the war and return home. All she had to do was keep her head down in the process.
Litoměřice was not far in the spring, in the summer, even in the fall, when Magda accompanied her father, and her brothers and her mother to market. It was not far when there were lambs to sell, and people to meet, and shops to look into the windows of. In winter, however, it was a world away. By the locked-up shops, the empty streets, and oppressive air, Magda began to doubt her great-aunt’s prediction that—in the wake of the exodus—Magda should easily find work in service.
There was only one thing that might buoy her uncertainty. Magda followed the narrow road to the cathedral of St. Stephen. In the church, she lit a candle, went to confession, and prayed for her soul and for her family. Afterwards, she found the bench in the square, next to the baroque fountain, where her father and she used to set up their market stall, and unpacked an apple and a piece of buttered bread. She had to eat now. A few streets up the hill, she knew there were large villas and she would have to begin knocking on them. It might take her the rest of the day before she found a place, and even then, it would be uncertain when she might get a meal.
As she ate, she stared at the regime’s flags hanging on each side of the town hall. A Christmas tree was set up in the center, as out of place as she felt. Nothing seemed remotely friendly or open to her here. A troop of teenaged boys and girls, with brown or white blouses beneath their coats, suddenly poured out of a school building. These were the housekeepers of Hitler’s Lebensraum, the Hitler Jugend and the Deutsche Mädel, like the two blond-braided girls who had come to the Nováks’ farm, the list of the family’s items clipped to their boards, and Magda’s mother’s guitar added to it.
Magda looked down at the last bite of bread and rose from the bench, an idea in her mind. There was a woman—a baker’s widow—she remembered from the market, a woman many people seemed to respect and trust. She was Czech, but her husband was a Sudeten German. The bakery was not far from the edge of the square, towards the walls of Old Town. Magda found it, stepped in and paní Eva looked up from behind the glass counter.
“I’m all out,” the woman called. “I’ve got only crumbs in the back.”
Magda shrugged. “I’m not here to buy bread.” She had only one set of ration cards. She would go hungry until she understood her situation better. “You might know my father? Slavko Novák? We’re from Voštiny. We sold honey, and apricot marmalade among other things. You bought marmalade for your Berliner from us.”
Paní Eva’s face lit up. “Of course. My goodness, yes. I’m sorry. I see so many people day in and day out, I didn’t recognize you at first. What are you doing here?”
Magda explained to her and the woman tut-tutted like a mother hen, stepped into the back, telling Magda to wait a moment, she would find something to eat for her first and write down an address. Magda’s spirits rose.
The bell on the door clanged and a woman in a warm coat walked in, her face falling at the sight of the emptied display case.
“Is that you, Uršula?” paní Eva called from the back room.
“It is,” the woman said, her tone ending on a note of hope, or was it a warning? She had dark blond hair piled up on top of her head and sharp nose. Her too-bright lipstick had run into the wrinkles around her mouth.
“I’ve got your loaf back here,” paní Eva announced. “Just a moment.”
She came back out and winked at Magda. She had a package wrapped in paper and handed it to the other woman, and for Magda, she had three slices of loaf ends and an address.
“The villa is located on the town’s outskirts,” she said.
The other woman cocked her head, peered over Magda’s shoulder, then jerked away as if she had not intended to see when Magda frowned at her.
“A respectable family,” the baker’s widow assured Magda.
Magda thanked her and headed for the door, when the other woman yanked on Magda’s coat sleeve.
“I wouldn’t bother if I were you,” she muttered. “The Taubers are—”
“Uršula!” Paní Eva’s voice was sharp and shrill. “They’re Sudeten Germans, just like you. You let the girl go now.” To Magda, the baker’s widow nodded. “Go to the villa I told you, and ask for Renata. Tell her I sent you.”
Uncertainty plagued Magda again as she climbed the steep road to Villa Liška. It lay a half hour outside of town near the top of Radobýl Mountain. If they turned her away, she would have nowhere else to go before dark.
She passed the sign for the mines and then came to a crest on the hill. To her right was a granary and a stable followed by a wide, snowy plain stretching to the squat mountains on the horizon. The sun was setting before her, and the sky was a cold December pink.
To her left was a high iron gate that surrounded the grounds of an elegant Gothic mansion. The villa had two and a half stories and a red tile roof with two chimneys. The facade was a cheery yellow limestone with red-brick accents. Lights streamed from four high, arched windows in the center of the house and onto a raised terrace. They looked like church windows, and when Magda examined them closer, she swore the mansion had been built onto an old chapel. From the terrace, a lawn sloped down to the road.
Magda smiled and checked the latch on the gate. It lifted and she was inside. She followed the road just a little and realized she was at the back of the house, which meant this was the service road gate. Above her was the second gate with a gravel drive that had to lead to the front entrance.
She followed the service road a few steps further. The road wound away and to the east of the house past a carriage house, and onwards towards what might have been the roof of a stable or barn. The owners would certainly have a view of the Elbe and Ohře rivers from the ridge.
To her left was a large stand of cedar trees, an. . .
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