All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

on October 22, 2019

The World That We Knew
Alice Hoffman
Scribner
2019, 365p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In Berlin, at the time when the world changed forever, Hanni Kohn knows she has to send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. Turning to an old woman who is familiar with Jewish magic, she finds her way to the daughter of a rabbi who creates a Golem, a mystical Jewish creature sworn to protect Hanni’s precious daughter Lea.

Lea’s journey with the Golem to France is fraught with danger and raw emotion. They travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses, to a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved, to a farm where the bees never forgive.

What does it mean to lose your mother? What makes a family? How is it possible to survive cruelty and continue to love? In a life that is as unreal as a fairytale, Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew takes us on a journey of loss and resistance, good and evil, the fantastical and the mortal, to a place where all roads lead past the angel of death and love is never-ending.

I have only recently become a fan of Alice Hoffman – she has written many books but I’ve only read a couple of them, having been sent some by the publisher for review in the past few years. She writes incredibly compelling stories, the sort where you lose entire hours because you’re so lost in the book. This one is set at the beginning of World War II, in Germany. Hanni knows that the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous, especially for her pretty daughter who is just 12, something that doesn’t concern soldiers. She cannot leave her paralysed mother and so she acts in desperation to send her daughter away from the danger zone. In order to do this she approaches a rabbi known for being able to create a golem, a creature of protection. The rabbi’s wife refuses to help but the rabbi’s daughter has been listening and knows what must be done. She will create the creature, which Hanni stipulates must be a woman. Someone to not just protect her daughter but care for her, love her. To be the mother that Hanni cannot be in these times.

And so Ava comes into existence. She’s created with one purpose entirely and that is to keep Lea, now known as Lillie as they escape to France, safe. And their life after that, is constantly trying to stay a step ahead of German soldiers, to avoid being rounded up and ending up on one of the trains to the death camps. As the Nazis swallow up more and more of France, Jewish people go from not being able to go to school to not being able to be seen in public on certain days, to not being able to be seen except during one hour to just being taken from their homes and herded into public places in order to be forced onto trains. As the war winds down and they face defeat it becomes being about making sure there are few left to tell the tales of what has been happening. They want to destroy all the evidence of the past five years of torture, imprisonment, segregation and other vile acts that have been committed.

I read a lot of books set during WWII. It’s a very popular time period for historical fiction and there’s such a broad scope that with all the ones I read, it rarely feels like reading the same thing more than once. This is definitely the first time I’ve read a book with so much Jewish folklore in it. I’m not super familiar with golems and I don’t think I’ve read a book with one in it before either. I don’t know a lot about Jewish folklore and even though I’ve read plenty of books about Jewish people in WWII, not many have gone into their beliefs. This is quite heavy with the magical realism, which is something I can quite enjoy in books. Everything is held together by the creation of Ava and the fact that she’s been brought into existence purely to protect Lea/Lillie, to do more than just that. To love her, to be her proxy mother when Hanni is unable to fill that role anymore. It was very heartbreaking to read about that sort of sacrifice. Hanni chooses to ‘honour her mother’, to stay with her when she cannot leave Berlin, knowing that she’s most likely condemning herself to death but it will be worth it if she can save her daughter.

Every time I read a WWII book, I’m always horrified anew at the atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers in the name of the regime. And it’s also not just about that, but also about the way people turned their backs on Jewish people who used to be their friends, or dobbed in their locations to people in power in order to have them removed. In some cases it was probably fear but in other cases it’s an example of how pervasive the anti-Jewish sentiment was and how deep it was. How it became safety in numbers, an ‘us vs them’ sort of mentality where people forgot that they’d been friends or colleagues with these people just a few months or years beforehand. There’s so many instances in where they are treated worse than animals, so many instances where you realise what has happened to people from earlier in the book. Like in one part of this book, the children are spared but then later on it’s been decided that as a “kindness”, Jewish children will be able to accompany their parents on the trains, so that they might ‘be together’. I really appreciated the effort of several characters who join the resistance movement, helping spirit people over the border to Switzerland. It’s such a dangerous occupation and the risks of getting caught were probably extremely high and the consequences extremely deadly.

I really found this a very interesting and engrossing read with quite a lot of the story tugging at the heartstrings in one way or another.

8/10

Book #167 of 2019

This is the 2nd book completed for my Mate-A-Thon Challenge – read a book with 4 or more words in the title.


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