By – March 6, 2023

Jen­nifer Rosner’s new nov­el, Once We Were Home, is a thought-pro­vok­ing, mov­ing tale about sev­er­al chil­dren whose Jew­ish par­ents have giv­en them to Chris­tians in des­per­ate attempts to save them from the Nazis. The plot tells the sto­ries of Roger, a young French Jew­ish boy hid­den away in a con­vent; Oskar and Ana, sib­lings whose moth­er arranges for them to be smug­gled out of a Pol­ish ghet­to and hid­den with a Chris­t­ian cou­ple; and Rena­ta, an archae­ol­o­gy stu­dent whose mys­te­ri­ous back­ground grows clear­er over the course of the nov­el. Span­ning sev­er­al decades, the book’s scope is ambi­tious. Ros­ner sets Renata’s nar­ra­tive in late 1960s Israel while also attend­ing to Roger’s, Oskar’s, and Ana’s in war-torn Europe. She con­tin­ues to fol­low these three war orphans until their time­lines, and plot­lines, inter­sect with Renata’s.

The char­ac­ters are all com­pelling and well-writ­ten, and their indi­vid­ual ups and downs are sure to cap­ti­vate read­ers; but the novel’s main ques­tions sur­round issues of iden­ti­ty, par­ent­hood, belong­ing, and moral­i­ty — issues that, for the pro­tag­o­nists, are com­pli­cat­ed by the way their lives were spared. What will hap­pen to the kids whose par­ents did not sur­vive? Or whose adop­tive par­ents don’t want to relin­quish them back to their bio­log­i­cal fam­i­lies after the war? Roger, for exam­ple, is bap­tized and hid­den away by the Catholic church in a direct attempt to hide him from his sur­viv­ing family.

Based on his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­e­na, Once We Were Home pro­vides insight into the real­i­ty of post­war life for Euro­pean Jews. The bulk of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture tends to focus on Nazism and con­cen­tra­tion camp expe­ri­ences, and under­stand­ably so. Rosner’s nov­el, how­ev­er, push­es the bound­aries of such lit­er­a­ture, explor­ing some of the longer-term con­se­quences that sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies faced. The con­cen­tra­tion camps may have been lib­er­at­ed, she seems to say, but those lucky enough to sur­vive faced unique chal­lenges that did not sim­ply dis­ap­pear when the war was over.

Discussion Questions

What is home?” Is it a phys­i­cal space, a feel­ing, a fam­i­ly, or a shared past? In her poignant nov­el, Once We Were Home, Jen­nifer Ros­ner tells the sto­ries of four Jew­ish chil­dren who were dis­placed dur­ing the war.

Roger was hid­den in a monastery, where he learned to love Catholi­cism. Ana and Oskar were giv­en to a child­less cou­ple. As a young child, Renata’s fam­i­ly sud­den­ly moved to Zurich, where her moth­er con­stant­ly remind­ed her not to tell any­one they were from Germany. 

After the war, their fam­i­lies and Jew­ish agen­cies try to redeem” these lost chil­dren and reunite them with their rel­a­tives in Israel. Roger doesn’t want to leave the monastery, which he con­sid­ers his fam­i­ly. Ana is excit­ed about going to Israel because she remem­bers her past and wants to explore her roots. Oskar was so young that he has no mem­o­ry of his her­itage and wants to go back to the Pol­ish fam­i­ly that saved him. Rena­ta, an arche­ol­o­gist work­ing on a dig in Israel, meets Roger and final­ly under­stands the sig­nif­i­cance of her past. 

In addi­tion to describ­ing the anguish of the fam­i­lies who gave up their chil­dren, Ros­ner explores the grief of those who took them in only to lose them to their birth families. 

For fans of Rosner’s The Yel­low Bird Sings, Once We Were Home is a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten nov­el about iden­ti­ty, fam­i­ly, and the mean­ing of home.