All That I Am is largely about the life of Dora Fabian, told from the perspectives of her cousin Ruth, and playwright Ernst Toller (with whom Dora had close relations). The main story takes place between the end of WWI and the start of WWII.
Dora, Ruth, Ernst, and many of their friends and associates flee Germany after Hitler comes to power. In the time that follows, they learn, by various sources, how Hitler is preparing for war with the rest of Europe. However, their refugee status in England prevents them from legally participating in political activism, and their exile from Germany means any anti-Nazi activity could put their lives at risk.
Still, they find ways, and they do what they can to disseminate information.
ATIA is based on true events and real people, but is written like a work of fiction. There were a few points in the novel where I almost felt like I was reading an essay or encyclopaedia entry, but, for the most part, the story feels like a story. I’d heard of Ernst Toller before, but many of the other names were completely unfamiliar. While I was reading ATIA, I was itching to know what was real and what was not, but I knew I couldn’t look up the information until I’d finished the novel lest I spoil the ending.
But my ignorance let me read the novel as a novel, not a work of historical fiction or fictionalised history or even of biography. Novels are, after all, my preferred form of reading material, and, in this case, perhaps it was good to not know any details beforehand. (It allows you that wondrous feeling of revelation.)
I reckon not knowing also meant every capture and every death hit a bit harder and went a bit deeper. I knew only that Ruth would survive the war, since her narrative is told as recollections from her older self several decades later. Her chapters in the novel are memory flashbacks that come to her prompted by some sight or sound from the present time.
Of course, I knew that everything would culminate in WWII, but I somehow maintained hope that Dora, Ruth or Ernst might be able to, by some miracle, mitigate the impact of the war. I never expected Funder to write out WWII from the story, but I still wanted some sort of victory for them, to make everything worthwhile. Shouldn’t courage be rewarded?
The fact that I didn’t know about Dora, Ruth and many of the other people in the novel, let alone what they actually did, makes me wonder who else History has brushed over or ignored. Although not necessarily a measure of one’s calibre or impact on the world, Dora’s Wikipedia page is disappointingly sparse. I wonder how many History textbooks give her a mention?
The character of Ruth Becker in the novel is actually based on the author’s friend Ruth Blatt. What a privilege it must have been for Funder to learn Ruth’s story, and to help tell it to the world – a little-known yet high-impact story.
And there are undoubtedly innumerable little-known, high-impact stories out there. It is awe-inspiring and overwhelming all at once.
And perhaps it is impossible, for those of us with ordinary memory capacity and limited time, to learn about all the significant characters in the history of the world, but it is still something to wonder at. It’s like staring at the night sky, wondering how many stars and constellations there are, but knowing and accepting that you’ll never learn all of their names.
Still, we can try.