Apple Cake and Baklava by Kathrin Rohmann, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Leila has fled with her family from Syria, via Italy, to live in rural Germany, where she is about to start at another new school. Although she now speaks German fluently and has settled well into her new life with her mother and two brothers, she is still very homesick. What makes this worse is that they have left her dad and Grandma Amina behind in Damascus and it is becoming increasingly difficult to contact them. Hopefully they will join them in the near future, but now her grandmother is ill which adds further anxiety. Leila’s most cherished object is a walnut taken from her grandmother’s beautiful garden which gives her great comfort and is carried everywhere. When she inevitably loses it, she is understandably devastated and decides that the only way to replace it is for her to retrace the long journey from Germany and try to return to Syria.

That difficult journey happens well into the story so let’s back track a bit. The other main character is Max, a German boy who is in the same class as Leila and finds her fascinating. When he tells his  Granny Gertrud about her, the old woman encourages him to be friendly and to invite him to visit her house to play games and have some home- made apple cake. Friendships between ten year old boys and girls are not so simple to engineer but eventually it seems that they might become firm friends.

As the title suggests, what really brings them together is food. By happy coincidence, Leila’s father had a bakery in Syria and Leila fondly remembers ‘her cheek against his apron with its nutty caramel fragrance’. Her mother and brothers are keen to replicate some of his marvellous recipes – including Baklava. Max also enjoys baking with his grandmother, especially when they make  Pomeranian Lebkuchen from a traditional recipe that have been handed down on ‘a yellowish piece of paper, creased and dog eared …written in a strange cursive script’ to her by her own grandmother. There is a great deal of lovingly described baking going on in this book which is so detailed that it made my mouth water!

Aside from the glorious evocative smells, this is a lightly told story about the special love that can happen between children and their grandparents. It also describes an emerging friendship that is set against a background of what it is like to be a refugee who has left behind all that is dear and familiar. Max learns to his surprise that Grandma Gertrud had also been a refugee during the Second World War but it takes his relationship with Leila to unlock this story.  Leila remembers the long and difficult journey from Syria that includes a dangerous, almost fatal sea crossing. All this information is cleverly woven into the immediacy of the story without seeming to be incongruous.

The black and white illustrations by  Franzisca Harvey throughout the book add a poignant dimension to the happy memories of Granny Gertrud baking Lebkuchen  when she was  a young girl and to those of Leila as she plays in her Grandma’s beautiful lush looking garden that smells of ‘ roses, coriander and basil’.

I recommend this newly translated children’s book that has a simple but strong plot with some important underlying messages about hope and mutual support. The introduction explains that it is the first children’s novel written by Kathrin Rohmann and grew out of a short award winning film project called ‘Grandma’s Garden Grows Within Me’ in 2015. The story gives us an encouraging glimpse of a German people who embrace refugees and work with them to create thriving businesses and happy communities. As I reached the conclusion to the book, I very much hoped that there might be enough space left for some of the recipes – I am glad to tell you that there was and that I intend to try them out very soon.

Karen Argent

October 2018

(This review was first published on the Letterpress Project website)

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