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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.