Book review: The Star on the Grave, Linda Margolin Royal

A novel inspired by the 'Japanese Schindler' and the author's personal ties to his wartime actions.

The story of Oskar Schindler and what he did to help the Jewish community is well-known, but others did what they could too. The Star on the Grave is the story of Japanese ambassador, Chiune Sugihara, who helped Jewish refugees flee Europe. Linda Margolin Royal’s debut novel recounts the heroism of Sugihara through her own family’s story. 

In 1940 Sugihara was forging documents to save Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. In 1968 Rachel Margol was a nurse in Sydney when her engagement to a Greek Orthodox man forced her father, Michael and grandmother, Felka, to face the past and their Jewish heritage. Rachel struggled to understand why her family had deceived her, especially when she ventured to Japan with Felka in an attempt to heal the wounds of the past. But she was not prepared for what this trip would reveal.

Based on Margolin’s family story of escape from Nazi-occupied Poland aided by the efforts of Sugihara, this book is history meets fiction, and covers Lithuania, Australia and Japan in the decades after World War II. It takes in both the Holocaust years and the Vietnam War protests.

At Rachel’s work, it’s a Jewish patient – a Holocaust survivor – that sparks her curiosity and spurs her to find out more about her relatives. History is not distant in this novel; it is all too real for the characters and their families and, as Felka tells Rachel about their heritage, past experiences that inform present practices make sense. Her grandmother sums it up in one sentence that goes some way to explaining the Margolin family decision-making: ‘Jews run because we learn anyone can become a Jew-hater.’

As the novel progresses, Rachel comes to understand how her family’s Polish and Jewish backgrounds have marked their lives, including the time spent in Japan during the war years. Through the clash and collision of cultures and religions within two different timelines, and expectations based on traditions. The novel shows how having a particular identity can be used against you.

Read: Theatre review: Stunt Double, Perth Festival

Margolin’s story also opens up a little-known chapter of history – one that is not taught in schools or talked about in a wider context, but should be, because it shows that history is filled with complexities and nuances. The Star on the Grave argues that there will always be prejudices in the world, but community is also built from hardship. The novel is filled with family, love, friendship, heartbreak and hope. It explores how family history shapes us and how surviving trauma makes us who we are. 

The Star on the Grave, Linda Margolin Royal
Publisher: Affirm Publishing
ISBN: 9781922930392
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288
Release date: 30 Jan 2024
RRP: $34.99

Ashleigh is a book reviewer at her website The BookMuse, and is involved in her local CBCA sub-branch. She has had items published in Good Reading Magazine, Facts and Fiction and Grapeshot, the Macquarie University student magazine. She has also worked with the ABC for International Day of Persons with a Disability in 2022.