Fic­tion

The World That We Knew: A Novel

  • Review
By – December 9, 2019

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 Invis­i­bil­i­tyLilith, Raleigh ReviewMin­er­va 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.

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