Paris 1943: Lana Antanova is on her way to see her husband with the thrilling news that she is pregnant. But when she arrives at the convent where he teaches music, she’s horrified to see Gestapo officers execute him for hiding a Jewish girl in the piano.
A few months later, grieving both her husband and her lost pregnancy, Lana is shocked when she’s approached to join the resistance on the French Riviera. As the daughter of a Russian countess, Lana has the perfect background to infiltrate the émigré community of Russian aristocrats who socialize with German officers, including the man who killed her husband.
Lana’s cover story makes her the mistress of Guy Pascal, a wealthy Swiss industrialist and fellow resistance member, in whose villa in Cap Ferrat she lives. Together, they gather information on upcoming raids and help members of the Jewish community escape. Consumed by her work, she doesn’t expect to become attached to a young Jewish girl or wonder about the secrets held by the man whose house she shares. And as the Nazis’ deadly efforts intensify, her intention to protect those around her may put them all at risk instead.
With Anita Abriel’s “heartfelt and memorable” (Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author) storytelling, Lana’s War is a sweeping and suspenseful tale of survival and second chances during some of the darkest days of history.
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Paris, July 1943
Lana Hartmann hurried down the Boulevard Saint-Germain to St. Catherine’s school, where Frederic taught piano. For once, the signs of the occupation—the slick German cars cruising down the boulevards, the Parisians crammed into buses, the endless lines of people waiting hours for a stick of butter—didn’t bother her. She was wildly, irrationally happy.
If it was possible, she was happier than the day she and Frederic had married in the autumn of 1941. Everyone said they were crazy: Who gets married when Europe is at war? Her wedding gown was an old party dress, and her shoes were made of rubber. But when she faced Frederic in the office at city hall, she felt as elegant as a princess.
Her hand went instinctively to her stomach. She couldn’t wait to tell Frederic her news. It was the worst possible time to have a baby; they couldn’t even afford an extra loaf from the corner patisserie. But Hitler and his army couldn’t take away the velvet sheen of a baby’s cheek, the sweet smell of breast milk on its breath.
Lana froze at the sight of a German truck that was parked in front of the convent. The sight of any truck emblazoned with the red and black swastika filled her with dread. The Germans usually left the nuns alone. With rising concern, she walked around the stone building and noticed Frederic standing in the music room talking to two Gestapo officers. She crouched down so the top of her head couldn’t be seen from inside and listened through the open window. If she raised her chin, she could just see Frederic facing the two men.
“Your papers, please,” the older officer said. He was in his thirties with a widow’s peak and dark eyes.
Frederic produced his papers, and the officer examined them carefully.
“Frederic Hartmann?” He looked at Frederic quizzically. “Hartmann doesn’t sound French.”
“My mother is French and my father is of German descent.…” Frederic stammered.
Frederic developed a slight stutter when he was nervous that Lana had always found endearing. It took him ages to get out the five words Lana, will you marry me? She had waited with delight for him to finish the sentence.
“You are from the north, from Lille?” the officer prompted.
“I came to Paris to study music at the university.”
“You must have been quite the musical protégé to come all the way to Paris.” The officer pointed to Frederic’s ring. “And you are married.”
“My wife is a student too; she’s going to be a chemist.”
“An upstanding young couple.” The officer handed Frederic his papers. “The rumors must be wrong.”
“Rumors?” Frederic gulped. Lana could see his Adam’s apple bobbing on his neck.
“There is a rumor that several Jewish children are attending St. Catherine’s convent, studying music.” His eyes narrowed. “I must have been misinformed.”
“Yes, you must be,” Frederic answered. This time his voice was stronger. As if he knew he had to vanquish his own fears to protect the children. “There are no Jewish children here.”
“Then you won’t mind if Gunther looks around.” The officer waved at the younger man.
“I’d be happy to take you to the children,” Frederic said. “They are with Sister Catherine studying geography.”
“You and I will stay here.” The officer glanced at the piano. “You can play some Wagner for me. One of the things I miss about Germany is hearing my beloved Wagner.”
Frederic sat stiffly at the piano. Lana held her breath. Frederic refused to play Wagner these days. How could he play music by Hitler’s favorite composer when Hitler was intent on wiping out all the Jews in Europe? And Wagner himself was known for despising Jews.
There was the sound of voices, and the younger officer appeared in the doorway. Lana craned her neck even farther to look into the room and saw four dark-haired children. Two she recognized: Ida and Sophie Rosenberg were Jewish sisters. Their father had been shot by the Gestapo for arguing with a German officer. His wife had been in labor, and the officer wouldn’t let them pass without their papers. By the time the girls’ father went back to their flat to retrieve them it would have been too late to get to the hospital. There was a scuffle, and Sophie and Ida’s father was killed.
“These children were hiding in the laundry room.” The officer pushed them into the room. “Sister Claudette was with them.”
Lana could see his pistol gleaming in its holster, and she put her hand over her mouth. She couldn’t make a sound; it would only cause more trouble if anyone discovered her.
“You mustn’t blame Sister Claudette or any of the nuns in the convent for having Jewish children,” Frederic said. “It’s my fault; these children are so talented it would be a crime if they couldn’t study piano.”
Frederic looked at the children, and Lana remembered the first time she saw his brown eyes and knew instinctively that he was kind as well as handsome.
“I understand your dilemma,” the older officer said pleasantly. “The German army has been in Paris for three years, and the French still don’t appreciate how much we support the arts. We brought the Berliner Philharmonicker to perform at the Paris Opera. We hold German music festivals and art shows all the time.” The benevolent expression disappeared. “But it is a greater crime to allow Jewish children to attend school when it is strictly forbidden. Everyone makes mistakes, Frederic Hartmann.” He lingered on his last name. “I will escort the children home to their parents and warn them it must never happen again.”
The younger officer’s grip tightened on Sophie, and she let out a small yelp.
“I’ll take them,” Frederic volunteered.
“That won’t be necessary,” the older man said. “We have a truck waiting out front.”
Lana saw Frederic take in the gleaming pistol. “It’s an easy walk from here.” Frederic reached for his hat. “It will feel good to get some air.”
“Is your wife pretty?” the officer asked.
“My wife?” Frederic said, surprised. “Yes, she’s beautiful.”
“And you would like to see her again.”
The color drained from Frederic’s cheeks, and his hands fell to his sides. “Yes, of course.”
“Then you will stay here while we take the children,” the officer instructed. He moved the children toward the door when a muffled sound came from the grand piano.
The officer stopped.
“Open the piano.” He took out his pistol and waved it at Frederic.
“Why would I open the piano, there’s nothing inside,” Frederic stammered.
“Do as I say or these children will see your blood splattered all over the floor.”
Lana watched Frederic fumble with the piano lid. A small face appeared, and Lana recognized Esther Cohen. She was six years old. Her father had been Frederic’s music professor before he was sent to a labor camp. Her mother worked two jobs, so Frederic sometimes brought her to school with him.
“Please don’t hurt her,” Frederic begged. “The sound of your boots scared her. I told her to get in the piano.”
“Hand me the child.” The officer pointed his gun at Esther.
“I’ll take responsibility for her.” Frederic held her in his arms. “She isn’t doing any harm. She’s an innocent child.”
“Give me the child now,” the officer barked.
Frederic tried to put Esther behind his back, but the younger officer grabbed her. Esther screamed, and Frederic lunged for her. Then the other officer fired his pistol. The shot made a sound that seemed to bounce off the walls of the music room and pierce Lana’s heart.
Lana stood on tiptoe and saw Esther dissolve into sobs and was relieved that she was alive. But then she peered closer and saw Frederic’s body splayed over the piano seat. Blood seeped from his chest and the worn rug turned red.
Lana sat on a bench in the Place du Panthéon opposite the Sorbonne. Her teeth chattered; she couldn’t stop shivering. She wasn’t ready to go home yet, to see Frederic’s music books and his photographs. Frederic loved taking photographs. He said even with the war there would be times they would want to remember: a weekend bicycle ride to the country that resulted in finding fresh vegetables and a whole carton of eggs; the kitchen table set with their one good tablecloth and a plate of mushroom omelets. Whenever Lana looked at the photo she could taste the fluffy yellow of the yolk and the olive oil used in the pan.
Frederic was too serious to be an optimist. He wasn’t like the students who sat around the cafés and proclaimed the Allied army would recover and push the Germans out of Paris. But she loved his seriousness. He was serious about his music and about their marriage, and he would have been serious about the baby. He would have checked hourly to make sure her chest was rising and falling when she slept.
She would miss his gentle manner and the way he made her feel loved and cherished. Only a few hours ago, this had been the happiest day of her life. She couldn’t wait to tell Frederic about the baby. How would she carry on without having him to talk to? Ever since they’d met, she had told him everything. She remembered when he had first approached her. All the students in the chemistry department knew one another. But Frederic didn’t tag along to any of the boisterous study sessions that often ended with someone taking out a bottle of schnapps. So she was surprised when he slid onto a bench beside her as if they were friends.
The Germans had occupied Paris for three months. For the most part Lana tried to ignore them. Although rationing had begun, she could still get a café crème from the patisserie near campus. And if she walked quickly, she barely heard the soldiers whistling at her from their seats at the outdoor cafés.
She was sitting in the park, a textbook in her lap.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” A male voice interrupted her studying. Lana looked up to see a man in his twenties with dark brown hair.
“I recognize you. You’re Lana Antanova,” he said before she could answer.
“How do you know my name?” she asked.
“You’re in my chemistry class. I looked you up on the class list,” he replied. His eyes sparkled when he smiled. “You wear crêpe dresses, and you always know the right answers.”
He took a bag of raisins out of his sack and offered it to her.
“I didn’t think anyone noticed what I wear,” Lana commented. She had seen him walking around between classes. He had always been alone. Could he be flirting with her?
“My mother works at a dress store in Lille,” he explained. “When I was younger she’d take me to work. I learned to appreciate colors and fabrics.”
“My mother lent me the dress; we’re the same size.” Lana ate a handful of raisins. “I like wearing something pretty, especially with all the Germans in their drab uniforms. It might sound frivolous, but I’ve always believed beauty makes you happy. I used to visit the Louvre every weekend.” She sighed. “But now that Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa are hidden, it’s like attending a wake.”
“I don’t think beauty is frivolous,” Frederic said earnestly. “I’m studying to be a pianist. Music fills up my head and here.” He pointed to his heart.
Lana closed her book and paid more attention. None of the other boys in her class understood her. They all thought girls in pretty dresses didn’t belong in the laboratory.
“I’m going to open a cosmetics company so when women look in the mirror, they’re happy. I’ll have a store on the Champs-Élysées with my name in gold letters over the window.”
“I wish I had a head for business. I’m only taking chemistry to please my father. He said if I was coming all the way to Paris to attend the conservatory I also had to take classes at the university that were useful. He doesn’t believe music is a real career.”
“Chemistry isn’t useful unless you want to be a chemist.” Lana laughed.
“It was either chemistry or engineering, and I’m even worse at technical drawing.”
“I can help you study chemistry,” Lana offered.
“Would you?” He brightened. “I can’t afford to pay you, but I have tickets to a student concert on Saturday night. Perhaps afterward we could get something to eat.”
Was Frederic asking her on a date? She wondered if she wanted to date him. She knew so little about him. But there was no reason to turn him down. His eyes were kind, and there were so few opportunities to enjoy herself.
“All right,” she said, and handed him the bag of raisins. “I would like that very much.”
On Saturday, Lana stood in front of the mirror at her dressing table and adjusted the buttons on her dress. The school week had seemed to drag on forever.
She did a small turn and studied the blue dress and matching cape. Was it too elegant to wear to a student concert? But Frederic complimented her dresses, and the color brought out her eyes.
Lana and her mother had moved into the apartment on Avenue Montaigne three years ago, when her mother had married Count Jacques Delacroix. Lana had delighted in the interior: a living room with red velvet walls and parquet floors like something out of Proust. Her own room with a wrought iron balcony overlooked the courtyard. And her mother had a closet just for her newly purchased ball gowns. For most of Lana’s childhood she had recycled the few dresses she’d brought from Russia until they had to be held together with clothespins.
But since the war began, she felt guilty for having thick rugs under her feet when Jews who had lost their homes slept in doorways. How could she appreciate the fireplaces in almost every room when all of Paris worried about having enough coal for the winter?
Her mother reminded her that the apartment had been in Jacques’s family for decades, which hadn’t made life under occupation easier. Their cook quit when her husband was sent to the front. Her mother presented her coupons at the shops like everyone else. The kitchen occupied a whole floor, but its cupboards were practically empty.
Lana appraised her dress one last time and walked to the hallway. Her mother and Jacques were away in Biarritz, and the rooms were silent. She felt a twinge of guilt for inviting Frederic without her mother’s permission. But they would only be there for a minute. Frederic was just a school friend.
There was a knock at the door, and Lana answered it. Frederic towered over her even though she had on heels. He wore a blazer with patched elbows and held a small bunch of daisies.
“For me?” she said. “I didn’t know you could buy fresh flowers in Paris unless you’re a German general.”
“They’re from my landlady’s garden.” He glanced around the entry and noticed the crystal chandelier. “I thought I must have the wrong apartment. The mailbox said Comte Delacroix.”
“That’s my mother’s husband,” Lana said. “Please come in while I put the flowers in water.”
When she returned with a vase, she found Frederic examining the artwork.
“Is that a Salvador Dalí?” He looked up.
“The count wrapped up all the valuable artwork and stashed it in the country.” Lana nodded. “He replaced them with a few modern pieces in case a nosy German gains entrance and wonders why the frames are empty.”
Frederic opened his mouth to say something and then closed it. Lana glanced at the grandfather clock and gathered her purse.
“We should probably go, I don’t want to make us late.”
Frederic was quiet on the walk to the theater, and Lana thought he was nervous. But he hardly said anything at intermission too, and when it was over, he stood awkwardly outside the auditorium.
“I think I’m coming down with a fever, perhaps I should take you home.”
Her hand went to his forehead the way her mother always checked if she had a temperature.
“You feel perfectly cool.”
“I have something, I wouldn’t want to get you sick.” He shuffled his feet. “We could have dinner another night.”
They walked silently to the apartment. Lana’s heels clicked along the pavement. She wondered what had changed since last week and then considered the start of their date.
“You think because I live in a fancy apartment, we shouldn’t be together. Is that why you don’t want to have dinner?” she demanded, hardly pausing to let him speak. “But my life wasn’t always like this. For most of my life, we had nothing. My parents were both members of the Russian nobility. My father was killed by the Bolsheviks, and I was born in a refugee camp.
“My mother did anything for us to survive: took in sewing, worked at a Citroën automobile factory. She met her husband when she worked in the cloakroom at the Ritz. Jacques asked her out for three months, but she refused because she didn’t have a good dress.” Lana’s eyes flashed. “The first time he proposed she turned him down; she wouldn’t marry without being certain she was in love.”
Lana finished, and her eyes dropped to the ground. She had never spoken to a man like that before, but she couldn’t let him walk away without knowing her history. His hand touched her shoulder, and she looked up.
“I know a place where we can get veal cutlets if you’re still hungry,” Frederic offered.
“Veal cutlets.” Lana’s mouth watered. Her mother hadn’t been able to find veal cutlets at the butcher since July.
“A friend has a restaurant in Le Marais. He gets veal on the black market. He wraps the cutlets inside a lettuce leaf for his favorite customers, and no one is the wiser.”
Lana imagined a juicy veal cutlet brushed with oil and sprinkled with basil.
“A whole veal cutlet?” she breathed.
“We might have to share one, but we can each have our own dessert,” Frederic said, and his smile was as bright as the lampposts lighting the sidewalk.
Lana sat on the bench in the Place du Panthéon and rubbed a bloodstain on her skirt. The shock of the afternoon had left her exhausted and her thoughts jumbled together.
For three years, they had lived in fear, but the fear was somewhat removed: like a gossamer curtain that separated the stage from the audience. Of course Lana had witnessed things that left her shaking: when she went to her mother’s one day and found the Levins’ apartment on the second floor empty. No one knew where they had gone, but Lana discovered Madame Levin’s toy poodle trembling in their coat closet and was certain they had been sent to a labor camp.
Last year, Avram in her geometry class never returned from summer vacation. Lana learned from a professor that Avram was one of the five thousand Jews rounded up by French police and sent to Drancy. From there they were put on trains to one of the camps in the east.
But now the abstract fear had become something that happened to her. The misery was so thick and deep it threatened to overpower her. It would be easy to let it take its course, to sit on this bench forever and simply stop living.
She noticed a new bloodstain on her skirt before the pain even started. The spot spread between her legs, and she stood up and shakily walked the five blocks to their flat.
The knot that had been in her stomach since she had hid outside the convent became a knife piercing her flesh. She climbed three flights of stairs like a blind person led by a sense of the familiar. Then she sunk to the floor and slid to the bathroom.
It was only hours later, when the cramps subsided and she had somehow managed to heat up a hot-water bottle that she let herself acknowledge what had happened. The Gestapo officers hadn’t just shot Frederic, they had also murdered Frederic’s child.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Lana’s War includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a conversation with author Anita Abriel. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Paris 1943: Lana Antanova, grieving the death of her husband—a music teacher killed at the hands of an SS officer—finds purpose again when she’s approached to join the Resistance on the French Riviera. As the daughter of a Russian countess, Lana has the perfect background to infiltrate the émigré society of Russian aristocrats who socialize with German officers, including the man who killed her husband. Lana’s cover story makes her the mistress of Guy Pascal, a wealthy Swiss industrialist and fellow Resistance member, in whose villa in Cap Ferrat she lives. Together they gather information on upcoming raids and help members of the Jewish community escape. Consumed by her work, she doesn’t expect to become attached to a young Jewish girl or wonder about the secrets held by the man whose house she shares. As the Nazis’ deadly efforts intensify, her desire to protect the people she cares about puts them at risk, forcing her to make an impossible choice.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Chapter 1 ends with Lana having lost her husband and unborn child, as “the abstract fear had become something that happened to her” (p. 12). Consider what she must have thought and felt having now been directly touched by the war. How does this set the tone of the novel?
2. Lana’s grief over Frederic’s death is so strong she spends most of her time at the convent in the months following his murder, taking only one class at university. Could her conviction over his death be representative of a greater sense of loss? Discuss her motivations in taking up Henri on his offer.
3. Henri gave Lana a list of instructions on how to behave when gathering information from German officers: “always accept a man’s offer of a cigarette because it made a good conversation starter; wear perfume because it made men stand a little closer and become more inclined to share their secrets” (p. 33). What are some other actions and ideas that would have been useful for Lana to use in these situations?
4. When Lana meets Guy, one of the first things he tells her is “I didn’t mean to miss the train, but sometimes things happen that I can’t control” (p. 42). How does this foreshadow the evolution of their relationship and the events that unfold?
5. Lana’s relationship with Sylvie and Odette goes directly against Guy’s orders to avoid emotional attachments. Do you think it is a natural maternal instinct that keeps Lana from staying away and has her bringing Odette presents? Is she filling the void of her own child by attempting to help these Jewish children?
6. When Lana bumps into Charles Langford after the noon cannon goes off, she remarks that the Riviera “feels like Paris before the war” (p. 139). Discuss the differences you’ve read about both settings and how the Riviera is changing for the worse.
7. Discuss how Lana’s encounter with Captain Von Harmon in chapter 13 is still relevant to women’s present-day experiences.
8. Guy finally reveals his past losses to Lana starting on page 198. How do each of their own experiences mirror the other’s? Discuss their motivations for joining the Resistance. Why do you think Guy finally opens up to Lana?
9. After revealing her connection to Hans, Giselle tells Lana, “But think of something important I can do. You can’t understand how I feel. I’m tired of this war, and I’m tired of hiding.” Each of the characters involved in the Resistance is looking for “something important to do.” How has this sentiment transcended history? What are some ways people are still looking for something important to do?
10. Discuss the difference between Lana’s reaction to Frederic’s death in the beginning of the novel and to Guy’s disappearance later on. How does her reaction to Guy’s disappearance show how her strength and ability in herself have grown?
11. Charles turns out to be an ally to the Resistance, offering to help Lana and Odette escape France. Discuss how Lana’s choice not to escape to England shows her loyalty to Guy but also her newly discovered independence.
12. The novel ends ten years after the events on the Rivera with Lana living in the moment, choosing to go with Guy to Egypt. She has learned “there wasn’t any point in worrying about the future. It was the present that was important” (p. 305). How is this sentiment representative of the world and the people at that time during and following World War II?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Throughout the novel we see many examples of women not following the traditional social constructs of the time. Lana turns the traditional role of women upside down by moving in with an unmarried man as well as by going back to school and eventually owning her own business. Giselle is a single woman living alone in a villa, and Sylvie’s and Lana’s mothers were both single parents. Discuss how each of these women is an example of early feminism. How do they personify women’s empowerment and a more progressive belief in social norms?
2. When Lana and Giselle visit Grasse in chapter 6, Lana almost forgets about the war until the close proximity of an internment camp is discussed. Many of these areas have since been designated historical sites—for example, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, A Living Memorial to the Holocaust at Auschwitz—with thousands of tourists visiting them yearly. Given that we’ve seen how the world has moved on since, discuss the impact of today’s internet culture on people’s views: has it created an even greater gap in understanding this time in history due to what many deem disrespectful online posts of influencers at Holocaust remembrance sites, or has the internet helped to increase education and elevate the importance of these museums and sites?
A Conversation with Anita Abriel
Q: What was one of the more fascinating facts you learned from your research for this novel?
A: One of the most fascinating things I learned was what was going on in the French Riviera during this time period. One hears so much about the fate of Jews in other parts of Europe: Germany, Poland, Hungary. It was chilling to learn what happened in an area that had been a safe and beautiful haven for Jews.
Q: Throughout your writing process, what have you found to be the most resourceful way to research World War II history?
A: I often start with the location, digging up as many articles and photos of the area during the time period, and then I read everything I can get my hands on. The internet is a great resource, as is my library. The stories my mother told me about the war are also very helpful in my writing and research.
Q: How much of Lana’s War is factual and how much is fiction?
A: Everything about Alois Brunner is factual—how Brunner was determined to exterminate all the Jews on the Riviera and how he avoided capture for years after the war. I invented Lana and Guy, but everything about the hotels being taken over by the Nazis and the raids on Jewish neighborhoods is factual.
Q: The mother/daughter relationship is threaded throughout Lana’s War and seen most strongly between Lana and her own mother, but also in Sylvie and Odette. Why did you choose to focus on these relationships?
A: Mother-and-daughter relationships are so important to me. My own relationship with my mother shaped me, and I like to write about similar relationships in my books. Mothers often have so much wisdom to impart to their daughters, and I have found there is nothing quite like a mother’s love.
Q: Why was it important to you to tell the story about the effects World War II had on children throughout Europe, specifically in France?
A: The horrific thing about World War II, or any war, is the effect on children. Children are innocent bystanders in a war, but their whole lives are upended. During World War II, so many European children not only lost their parents; they also lost their heritage. It’s important to write these stories down so there is a record of these events, and hopefully they won’t keep happening.
Q: Why do you think female spies were such an integral part of the Resistance and intelligence networks throughout World War II?
A: Female spies were crucial to the Resistance because their presence in many situations wasn’t suspicious. They could integrate themselves into places that men couldn’t without causing alarm. Women have always been good at adapting to new roles; it’s part of their nature. And I think women are much braver than they are given credit for. Many women I know would do anything for their families without hesitation. That level of sacrifice was merely increased during World War II.
Q: While a large part of Lana’s War is about the romance between Lana and Guy, the story is ultimately about Lana discovering her own independence. Did you set out to write a novel about women pushing boundaries during World War II?
A: The novel evolved as I learned more about Lana’s character. Romance is always important to me: I believe that love is one of the greatest gifts in life. But at the end of the day, one has to live with oneself. To be fulfilled as a woman, it’s important to always be pushing boundaries. I was raised to believe women could do anything, as long as they worked hard and didn’t give up on the things they believed in.
Q: Do you have a next project in mind? And, if so, what is it?
A: My next project is also set during World War II. It is about women and family and loss. With a good dose of hope thrown in!