My Real Name is Hanna

Tara Lynn Masih

By – June 5, 2018

In 1939, life in the Ukraine feels uncer­tain for four­teen-year-old Han­na Sliv­ka and her fam­i­ly. Jews aren’t quite accept­ed in their small shtetl, and there’s anti-Semi­tism all around, in the form of taunt­ing, name-call­ing, and stone-throw­ing. Much of Hanna’s child­hood is spent out­doors prepar­ing for Jew­ish hol­i­days with her fam­i­ly, and dec­o­rat­ing tra­di­tion­al Ukrain­ian East­er eggs with her friend­ly Chris­t­ian neigh­bor. Still, Hitler’s army is on its way. Hanna’s fam­i­ly and the oth­er Jews of the shtetl hear they will be deport­ed or sim­ply round­ed up and shot. Hanna’s fam­i­ly decides to hide in a remote cab­in deep in the for­est. It is not easy for a fam­i­ly with young chil­dren to make life work in this new sit­u­a­tion, but Han­na focus­es on the beau­ty of nature and on help­ing her fam­i­ly sur­vive. She learns to use the calls of for­est ani­mals as alarms or cam­ou­flage in times of dan­ger. She finds unex­pect­ed courage in the brav­ery of her father and uncle, who risk their lives to pro­vide for the fam­i­ly. Still, she remains a teenaged girl. She thinks often of Leon, a spe­cial friend close to her age who is also in hid­ing with his fam­i­ly, and hopes he is safe. Even­tu­al­ly the two fam­i­lies reunite and hide together.

As time pass­es, the for­est cab­ins are deemed unsafe and the fam­i­lies move into a cave even deep­er in the for­est. The under­ground cave is a fright­en­ing place to hide. It is dark, far from fresh air, and rem­i­nis­cent of a bur­ial place. Through times of dan­ger, hunger, and uncer­tain­ty, Han­na and her fam­i­ly per­se­vere. At the end of the war, they return to their homes and find they are wel­comed by very few of their for­mer neigh­bors. Most Jews have not sur­vived; many non-Jews are threat­ened by their return and act vio­lent­ly towards them. They know they can nev­er make a new life in their for­mer home, so Han­na and her fam­i­ly change their names and plan to leave for the Unit­ed States. Leon’s fam­i­ly change their names as well, and move to anoth­er loca­tion in the Ukraine. The one loy­al Chris­t­ian friend who aid­ed them through­out is remem­bered with grat­i­tude and love. But Han­na car­ries the lega­cy of fear and ter­ror with her across the ocean, and it takes her years to tell her daugh­ter the sto­ry of her for­mer life and true identity.

The sto­ry is based on the true expe­ri­ences of peo­ple like Han­na and her fam­i­ly, and is told effec­tive­ly and mov­ing­ly. Han­na is an admirable role mod­el for young read­ers. The peri­od depict­ing life in the under­ground cave is described in par­tic­u­lar­ly pow­er­ful prose. An author’s note at the end gives his­tor­i­cal back­ground and helps sep­a­rate fic­tion from fact. This is a well writ­ten and high­ly rec­om­mend­ed selec­tion for ages 12 and up.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions

My Real Name is Han­na by Tara Lynn Masih tells a spare, heart­felt, and ele­gant sto­ry of escape and sur­vival that will cap­ti­vate audi­ences of all faiths. When her small Ukrain­ian town is occu­pied by the Ger­mans, Han­na Sliv­ka and her fam­i­ly must flee or face exe­cu­tion or depor­ta­tion. They take to the for­est, and even­tu­al­ly a hid­den cave where they con­front dire dai­ly strug­gles like star­va­tion, dark­ness, fear and despair. With Nazis on their trail, can the strength of fam­i­ly and their love of sto­ry­telling, the atten­tion of a young man named Leon, and the kind­ness of Chris­t­ian neigh­bors pro­vide enough faith to sus­tain Han­na’s fight­ing spir­it? Masih taps Jew­ish and Ukrain­ian folk­lore to bring us a grip­ping, lay­ered, and well-researched nov­el of courage, grit and resilien­cy. Told through the ret­ro­spec­tive lens of adult Han­na nar­rat­ing a for­mer­ly untold per­son­al his­to­ry to her daugh­ter, the result is a lyri­cal, rich­ly detailed and wor­thy addi­tion to the Holo­caust canon.