When Jacob’s brother died in his arms as the result of a beating from an SS guard, Jacob swore that he would kill that guard. This promise kept Jacob going through the end of the war, through the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, but now that the war is over, Jacob struggles to keep that promise. Meanwhile, Sarah is trying to recover from deprivation and rape, seeking a safe place and protection. Martin Fletcher’s Jacob’s Oath is a mediation on hatred, vengeance, love, and forgiveness.
Jacob’s Oath opens in Bergen-Belsen, after the camp has been liberated. Jacob is recovering from his injuries and near-starvation when he spots Hans Seeler, the guard who killed his mother. Seeler, as sadistic a Nazi as you’ll ever find in fiction, has disguised himself as a prisoner and is sneaking out of the camp. Jacob sets out after Seeler as soon as his health permits, following him home to Heidelberg. (The men grew up in the same city.)
Sarah, who has been hiding in Berlin with sympathetic Germans, also heads out for Heidelberg after she is raped by a Russian soldier. Another Russian guides her as close to Heidelberg as he can before handing her over to the Americans to take her the rest of the way. She hopes (but doubts) that her fiancé, who disappeared three years prior, also made it back to Heidelberg. When she learns that there is one Jewish man in the city, she rushes to Jacob’s apartment, thinking that she might find her fiancé.
As Sarah and Jacob grow closer—being the only Jews in a city full of former Nazis who have shoved their swastikas in a drawer and pulled a veneer over their anti-Semitism will do that—their conversations give readers plenty of opportunities to think about the value of revenge and forgiveness. Once Sarah learns what Jacob plans to do, she argues that hatred will destroy him and won’t bring his brother back. Her experience of the war and the Holocaust have not embittered her the way that years in concentration camps have done. But, Seeler and others stand a good chance of getting away with their crimes. Who will avenge the dead and the survivors if not people like Jacob and the members of the Jewish Brigade that are racketing around post-war Germany slitting throats?
The plot of Jacob’s Oath gets a little flimsy towards the end and I felt let down by how facile it was. The first part of the book had me completely hooked as I watched two survivors carve out their own territory to occupy and start to heal. I was even invested in the middle of the book, in which Jacob started to wonder if he really could carry out his promised revenge after being sustained by anger and hatred for so many months. But the ending sacrificed a lot of thoughtfulness for action.