In the spring of 1941, Berlin is “a tiger of a city filled with soot and ashes, where glass was never swept up, and fires were burned in the hallways of apartment houses, and people disappeared without a trace, and shoes littered the streets, left behind by those who had struggled.”
Desperate to get her 12-year-old daughter out of Berlin, Hanni Kohn arranges for forged papers that identify Lea as a Christian. But she also has the rabbi’s clever daughter Ettie make a mystical Jewish being — a golem — to watch over Lea and keep her safe. Ava, the golem fashioned from water and clay, awakes to the world as Lea’s older cousin, a tall teenager wearing men’s boots and with the ability to communicate with birds and angels. Her life is linked to Lea’s, but also to her maker Ettie, who flees Berlin on the same train but must take a different path when challenged by soldiers at the French border.
While Lea and Ava find temporary refuge in Paris with a math professor’s family, Ettie makes her way to Vichy territory, ready to break every commandment as she seeks revenge against the Nazis.
Alice Hoffman’s signature magical realism and lyrical chiaroscuro writing enhance “The World That We Knew,” a moving story of love and loss and resilience in the face of immense tragedy. As in her rich historical novel of the Masada, “The Dovekeepers,” Hoffman doesn’t shy away from war’s horrors, but her characters, especially Ava, are keenly aware of the beauties of the natural world and the small pleasures of the everyday.
In Paris, Lea falls in love with the professor’s younger son, Julien, but he stays behind when she and Ava seek safety in a convent. Ava bakes bread for the nuns and dances with a lonely heron in a garden of silver roses.
Other characters also find refuge in the isolated mountain villages near Switzerland. Victor, Julien’s older brother, leads the same resistance cell that Ettie joins. Marianne, once a servant in Victor and Julien’s house, returns to her father’s farm and guides children across the border. Julien, having evaded the Nazis in Paris when his father bribes a guard, becomes a teacher at a château used as a shelter for Jewish children. This is before the Germans decide to “reunite” the students with their parents at Auschwitz, before Lea learns the true cost of her mother’s final wishes and sacrifice.
Hoffman’s fiction has long been informed by fairy tales, and “The World That We Knew” is a dark and lovely fable. Into the woods these refugees go, hoping to survive. After all, this is the promise extracted by those left behind: “Live. Never forget. Tell our story.”
Reviewer and writer Nancy Pate lives in Florida.
The World That We Knew
By: Alice Hoffman.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 369 pages, $27.99.
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