The World and All That It Holds

  • Review
By – May 29, 2023

Although 1.5 mil­lion Jews fought in World War I, the involve­ment of the Sephardic Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty often goes unno­ticed. Alek­san­dar Hemon’s book, The World and All That It Holds, high­lights the expe­ri­ence of Rafael Pin­to of Sara­je­vo. Hemon, a Bosn­ian Amer­i­can, inter­jects his inti­mate knowl­edge of Sara­je­vo and the Sephardic dias­po­ra into the book, giv­ing tex­ture and depth to Pinto’s story.

Before the war, Rafael Pin­to attend­ed phar­ma­cy school in Vien­na, where he became a sophis­ti­cat­ed dandy. He returned home, pre­pared to take over his father’s phar­ma­cy. Then Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand was assas­si­nat­ed, war broke out, and Pin­to was con­script­ed. The book fol­lows his jour­ney from the onset of World War I in 1914, to the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, to, even­tu­al­ly, Shang­hai on the eve of World War II.

The intro­spec­tive, philo­soph­i­cal Hemon com­bines his Sara­je­van and Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, using Span­jol (Ladi­no) and mak­ing ref­er­ences to the Torah, includ­ing the bind­ing of Isaac and the yet­zer hara. In doing so, Hemon makes Pin­to a three-dimen­sion­al char­ac­ter who is both a Bosn­ian and a Jew with deep roots in the Sephardic community.

Epic and mul­ti-lay­ered, Hemon’s book is a his­tor­i­cal nov­el, a war sto­ry, a ghost tale, and a sto­ry about love. With unique char­ac­ters like Pinto’s part­ner-and-fel­low sol­dier Osman and his adopt­ed daugh­ter Rahela, the sto­ry draws us in and allows us to expe­ri­ence the sights, sounds, and even smells of the places where we find Pin­to. That being said, the depic­tion of war and its bru­tal impact on indi­vid­u­als and towns is graph­ic and often uncom­fort­able to read. Pin­to lives in abject pover­ty: his clothes are tat­tered, his shoes are held togeth­er with string, and he is often starving. 

While they’re in the army, Osman pro­tects Pin­to from the anti­se­mit­ic slurs and abuse he endures. But Pin­to con­tin­ues to see Osman as his pro­tec­tor, even after the man has died. Ulti­mate­ly, the love Pin­to feels for the infant Rahela — who may or may not be Osman’s bio­log­i­cal daugh­ter — keeps him alive.

Through­out this charm­ing and inti­mate book, Hemon remains true to his Jew­ish roots, plac­ing Pinto’s expe­ri­ences in a Jew­ish con­text. It is a com­pelling jour­ney that offers insight into the life of a Sephardic Jew dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. It is also a cel­e­bra­tion of the human spir­it and its deter­mi­na­tion to survive.

Mar­i­an Stoltz-Loike, Ph.D. is author, speak­er and aca­d­e­mi­cian. She is the author of Dual Career Cou­ples: New Per­spec­tives in Coun­sel­ing and Cross-Cul­tur­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

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