Some­day We Will Fly

By – August 19, 2019

Lil­lia Kaz­ka and her fam­i­ly are cir­cus per­form­ers in pre-World War II Poland, where the dan­gers faced by the Jew­ish mem­bers of their com­pa­ny are staged ones. Risks are dra­mat­ic and exag­ger­at­ed, par­tic­i­pants and audi­ence mem­bers under­stand­ing that escape from per­il will be the enter­tain­ing out­come. Moth­ers pro­tect their tightrope-walk­ing daugh­ters by recit­ing tehillim (psalms), and No one mind­ed Jew­ish­ness yet.” In Rachel DeWoskin’s deep and har­row­ing nov­el, her char­ac­ters lives are more than just metaphors for the pre­car­i­ous­ness of Jew­ish exis­tence. This is an explo­ration of Jew­ish refugees who found shel­ter, of a kind, in Shang­hai dur­ing the War. The sense of life as a chaot­ic per­for­mance, its actors robbed of auton­o­my, may seem an obvi­ous struc­ture to impose on this time in his­to­ry. Yet DeWoskin’s philo­soph­i­cal­ly search­ing nar­ra­tive com­plete­ly avoids sim­ple par­al­lels or com­fort­ing redemp­tion. Some­day We Will Fly is a bril­liant­ly real­ized human dra­ma, its threat­ened pro­tag­o­nists respond­ing to their impris­oned lives with both des­per­ate con­tor­tions and unbe­liev­able grace. Vast human suf­fer­ing, as well as the par­tic­u­lars of Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal suf­fer­ing, define this novel.

Lillia’s world has been a para­dox, defined by a sta­ble and pro­tec­tive fam­i­ly whose acro­bat­ic career would seem to pre­clude the secu­ri­ty that embraces her. As one review­er described the skill­ful illu­sions of her par­ents, her moth­er, Alen­ka, is weight­less,” while Bercik, her father, is a mas­ter­ful anchor.” When her moth­er dis­ap­pears, a vic­tim of Nazi ter­ror, her weight­less­ness becomes lit­er­al, as Lilia’s long­ing for a miss­ing par­ent hov­ers over her con­scious­ness. Her father, mean­while, man­ages to orches­trate the escape of the rest of their fam­i­ly. As the strains of car­ing for Lil­lia and her dis­abled baby sis­ter grad­u­al­ly weak­en him phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly, Lil­lia responds to their family’s dis­in­te­gra­tion with solu­tions which erode her dig­ni­ty. Her exchanges with her father and her own inter­nal mono­logues ques­tion the sta­bil­i­ty of human iden­ti­ty. Has War­saw Lil­lia” whol­ly dis­ap­peared, replaced by the com­pro­mised vic­tim which she has become? As Lil­lia states with more anger than res­ig­na­tion, I was tired of oth­er people’s facts.” Even God is not immune to her accu­sa­tions; aboard ship to Chi­na, she pic­tures Him mov­ing us around the decks like dolls…organizing as I used to when I had a dollhouse.”

There are many sec­ondary char­ac­ters who inter­act with Lil­lia, all of whom share this ter­ri­fy­ing lack of agency. Oth­er Jew­ish women become moth­er fig­ures to her, only to suf­fer the same frag­ile fate as her own moth­er. At the Kadoorie School for Jew­ish refugees, Lil­lia con­fronts the social and eco­nom­ic hier­ar­chies which divide their com­mu­ni­ty, and which prove to be as imper­ma­nent as every­thing else after the attack on Pearl Har­bor and America’s entry into the War. Girls who where safe and priv­i­leged change place with those liv­ing under the worst cir­cum­stances. Although rela­tion­ships between Jews and the native Chi­nese are lim­it­ed, Lillia’s deep attach­ment to a Chi­nese boy, Wei, is utter­ly con­vinc­ing and entire­ly free of exoti­cism. DeWoskin often con­veys the inten­si­ty of Lillia’s expe­ri­ences through a mixed sense impres­sions, as when she feels her War­saw syn­a­gogue to be warm with syllables.”

The book con­cludes with a detailed list of his­tor­i­cal sources, and an Author’s Note” of great impor­tance. DeWoskin explains the dif­fer­ence between works of his­to­ry and his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and admits, with­out apol­o­gy, that some rela­tion­ships in the book would have been less prob­a­ble than oth­ers. Most impor­tant­ly she reminds us that authors have to do our home­work,” and that she spent years con­sult­ing count­less doc­u­ments. Mere iden­ti­ty as a group’s mem­ber does not grant auto­mat­ic access to the com­plex­i­ty of that group’s past. Nor does being a curi­ous, gift­ed, and empath­ic mem­ber of a dif­fer­ent group deny an author the pos­si­bil­i­ty of under­stand­ing that past. As much as Some­day We Will Fly is a work of Holo­caust fic­tion, it is also DeWoskin’s med­i­ta­tion on the nature of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion itself: His­tor­i­cal fic­tion allows writ­ers and read­ers to vis­it moments that aren’t the ones we live in, and to cre­ate con­nec­tions between then and now.”

Some­day We Will Fly is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for read­ers from four­teen to adult.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

The daugh­ter of Jew­ish cir­cus per­form­ers, Lil­lia Kaz­ka has already seen her beloved War­saw torn apart by the Nazis. When her moth­er goes miss­ing after her par­ents’ last acro­bat­ic per­for­mance ends in dis­as­ter, Lil­lia flees to Japan­ese-occu­pied Shang­hai with her father and younger sis­ter. She doesn’t face the same dan­gers there as she did in Poland, but life as a refugee in an embat­tled city is far from easy. As she and her father try to scrape togeth­er enough food and mon­ey to sur­vive, Lil­lia clings to hope — that her moth­er is alive some­where, that her new school rep­re­sents a gen­uine future, and that she is devel­op­ing a last­ing con­nec­tion with a fun­ny and tal­ent­ed boy named Wei. Through it all, she seeks solace in the acro­bat­ic arts that sus­tained her par­ents before the war. DeWoskin’s thor­ough research and sharp, empa­thet­ic prose will immerse read­ers in wartime Shang­hai. Ful­ly-real­ized char­ac­ters leap and twirl off the pages of this lumi­nous, haunt­ing novel.