The Girl From Over There: The Hope­ful Sto­ry of a Young Jew­ish Immigrant

Sharon Rechter, Kar­la Ger­ard (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – June 24, 2021

Sharon Rechter’s nov­el, based on the expe­ri­ences of Holo­caust sur­vivors who found refuge in Israel after the war, is unusu­al in sev­er­al ways. Accord­ing to the book’s acknowl­edge­ments, the author orig­i­nal­ly wrote the sto­ry when she was eleven years old, which at least part­ly accounts for its tone of child­like hon­esty. Addi­tion­al­ly, few Eng­lish-lan­guage children’s books have dealt with the lack of accep­tance that immi­grants, specif­i­cal­ly those deal­ing with the trau­ma of cat­a­stroph­ic loss, some­times con­front­ed in the new Jew­ish state. The girl of the title is Miri­am, a new arrival at an Israeli kib­butz, and the over there” is the dev­as­tat­ed world of Europe’s Jews, a place too painful­ly threat­en­ing for those out­side of it to contemplate.

When Miri­am arrives at the kib­butz, she is not only unable to speak Hebrew, but also is reluc­tant to com­mu­ni­cate ver­bal­ly at all. Hav­ing lost her fam­i­ly and wit­nessed unspeak­able atroc­i­ties, she can hard­ly absorb the real­i­ty of a safe phys­i­cal shel­ter. While young read­ers may antic­i­pate a heart­warm­ing tale of com­pas­sion, Rechter imme­di­ate­ly dis­abus­es them of that notion. Michal, Yael, and oth­er pre­teens in the com­mu­ni­ty are bel­liger­ent and cru­el to Miri­am. When Leah, their care­tak­er, asks them to be under­stand­ing, the chil­dren react with increas­ing hos­til­i­ty. Rechter cap­tures the hor­ri­fy­ing, if famil­iar, response of chil­dren who are them­selves inse­cure and project this emo­tion onto the most vul­ner­a­ble among them: We hate her instant­ly, but no one could say why.”

As anoth­er group of Euro­pean refugees arrives at the kib­butz, the nar­ra­tive becomes more com­plex. Manek, an old­er sur­vivor from Poland who has lost his fam­i­ly, becomes a sur­ro­gate father to oth­ers who have been sim­i­lar­ly uproot­ed. As he nar­rates the events of his past, and when even the strong Leah suc­cumbs to grief over mem­o­ries of her own loss­es, Michal begins to regret her hate­ful actions. There is no one moment of epiphany; young read­ers see that Michal’s growth is grad­ual Ear­li­er in the nov­el, her friend Yael artic­u­lates with­out self-aware­ness why the vic­tims’ appar­ent moral puri­ty inflames her: They’re cow­ards, and they’re weird, and they hold onto old things like some pre­cious trea­sure. And they always hold back their tears like heroes.” Read­ers will rec­og­nize the psy­chol­o­gy of bul­ly­ing, but they may be unaware why Jews who did not expe­ri­ence the Holo­caust might respond with cru­el­ty to those who did

The novel’s folk-art illus­tra­tions also reflect the per­spec­tive of child­hood. Flat figures

with almost uni­form facial fea­tures are sur­pris­ing­ly effec­tive in com­mu­ni­cat­ing a range of emo­tions. One such scene shows Miri­am and Dan, a boy on the kib­butz who has become her pro­tec­tor, brush­ing their teeth togeth­er in the com­mu­nal bath­room. Both have elon­gat­ed arms and legs, their eyes almost iden­ti­cal. The sym­me­try empha­sizes their close, spe­cial, bond. When Manek draws from a tat­tered sack a Hanukkah meno­rah that he res­cued, one large tear runs down his face, exact­ly the way a young child might depict sad­ness. Small­er pic­tures of red and pink ros­es dec­o­rate page cor­ners and chap­ter head­ings, a bright touch of beau­ty in an oth­er­wise dark story.

Although the res­o­lu­tion of the plot may come across as a bit abrupt, the extreme events of the time did some­times lead to odd, even incon­ceiv­able, out­comes. While the raw emo­tions and anguish of the past are over­whelm­ing, ulti­mate­ly Jews from over there” find a way both to keep hold of their pasts and dis­cov­er a new future.

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.

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