Award-winning author Alice Hoffman’s new novel, The World That We Knew, begins in the spring of 1941 in Berlin, when life for European Jews was increasingly becoming a terrifying nightmare. Hoffman uses fairy-tale elements as a means for her characters to comprehend their changing surroundings; her female main characters become like wolves in a world of demons, evil spirits, and angels of destruction. These women rise out of the darkness, bite their attackers, join a resistance movement, and try to survive. Lea, a twelve-year-old girl, determines that “demons were on the streets. They wore brown uniforms, they took whatever they wanted, they were cold-blooded, even though they looked like young men.” Lea learns early on that to survive the war, she will need to be braver than she has ever been.
In a continuation of the fairy tale, and as the ghetto experience becomes more ominous, Lea’s mother, Hanni, goes to the rabbi’s wife in the hope that the rabbi’s knowledge of mysticism would have him create a golem to protect her daughter. A golem is a mystical being made of magic and faith that is human-like in appearance but lacks a soul and is required to follow the demands of their maker. But it is Ettie, the rabbi’s daughter, who overhears and is eager to help. Ettie has always listened in on the men’s conversations and knows the magic that her father recites in order to create a golem. Ettie, who believes in the strength and power of women and aspires to be the “Queen Esther” of her time, creates Ava, a golem to protect Lea and take her out of Berlin to safety.
Ava becomes a loving protector who shines light on the extreme sacrifices that parents had to make to save their children during the Holocaust, often requiring them to separate from their children and use false documents to pursue safety elsewhere. Ava is able to foresee future events, and she notices Azriel, the Angel of Death, who frequently looms nearby in trees and shadows. Ava interprets Azriel’s moves, despite his inability to detect her due to her inhuman quality.
Once Ava and Lea leave Berlin and arrive in Paris, Hoffman introduces two young men, Victor and Julien, whose stories intertwine with Lea and Ettie’s. The young men participate in an underground resistance movement and add a layer of romance to this fairy tale-like novel. While navigating their own survival and familial losses, they create bombs, set up traps, organize escapes over the border to Italy, and fall in love with young women whose lives are full of tragedy and hope.
Hoffman’s characters explore various hidden identities – a golem hidden in the role of a human, a Jew hidden in the role of a gentile, a war resistance volunteer hidden in the role of a Nazi sympathizer. These masks, just like the ones Lea projects onto the Nazis, show that “the world that they knew” is a place worth fighting and suffering for.
Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) and winner of the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.