The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman
The World That We Knew is a story of fierce determination, of sacrifice, of love and of a struggle to survive. The world Hanni knows is full of demons and to survive one has to be as a wolf, wily enough to slip away, ready to fight when confronted, wounded and starving, and if necessary, go on alone in order to survive. As a Jewish mother in Berlin in 1941, she finds the world is becoming smaller. Her husband is murdered, her mother too ill to move. Hanni, seeing the world closing in and the Nazi regime's net tightening, determines to save her 12-year-old daughter Lea.
Calling on ancient Hebrew magical tradition, Ettie, the rabbi's daughter, creates a golem for Hanni. The creature's name is Ava, clay shaped in the form of a woman but with supernatural protective powers. In return for this creation that will accompany Lea away from Berlin and continue to protect her in France, Ettie and her sister are also able to buy passage on a train out of Berlin, desperately seeking to avoid the clutches of the Nazis.
This is a story of a nightmare time in history, and mirrors the experience of so many Jews pursued by a Nazi regime determined to exterminate them. There is historical truth in Ettie's and Lea's journeys, in the persecutions in Berlin, the searching of trains, the roundup of the infamous Velodrome d'Hiver and the raids on orphanages, the guerilla resistance in the countryside of France and in the escape route over the mountains to Switzerland. Following their different paths and drawing other people into their stories, Lea and Ettie both journey from Paris and across rural France to convent, to school, to farm and countryside, assisted by the supernatural powers of Ava, and by the kindness and determination and goodness of people who shelter and assist them. The farm worker, the resistance fighter, the priest, the nuns and the doctor all act with quiet bravery and determination to protect these Jewish refugees, and resist the evil that has invaded their homeland.
What makes this more than a story of human survival is the supernatural element that raises these historical events to mythical proportions. The Hebrew tradition of the magical is incorporated into the story: the creation of a golem as a visible and potent expression of a mother's love, the weaving of Ava's uncanny powers of language and strength into the story to affect events, and the appearance of Azriel, the angel of death to carry away a soul at the end of a life, add an epic quality to this historically-based story. The narrative becomes both an account of individual suffering and an account of the greater battle between good and evil in the world. German officers and soldiers are one-dimensional embodiments of evil, while the French and Jewish characters speak with love and act with courage and resolve: parents sacrifice themselves for their children, ordinary people risk retribution to help strangers to safety, and love endures despite death.
The human drama that plays out in this book, of suffering and stoicism, of love and loss, is heart wrenching in its simple and lyrical telling. The elements of magic allow the reader to see more than the horror that the Holocaust brought to the world. Both make this book worth reading as a testament to the power of love to survive and endure over evil.
Reviewer: Clare Lyon
Simon & Schuster, RRP $37.99