The World That We Knew: A Novel

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 (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

Discussion Questions

Han­ni is des­per­ate to get her four­teen-year-old daugh­ter, Lea, out of Berlin before the Nazis come and destroy every­thing and every­one. She hatch­es a plan to ask the rab­bi to help Lea, but the rab­bi’s wife refus­es to even let her ask the rab­bi. How­ev­er, Etti, the rab­bi’s daugh­ter, has eaves­dropped on the men’s incan­ta­tions and offers to cre­ate a golem who will accom­pa­ny Lea to safe­ty. Once the golem has com­plet­ed its task, Lea is to remove its ani­mat­ing let­ters, and return it to mud.

But the golem devel­ops its own per­son­al­i­ty and rela­tion­ship with Lea, as they race and hide through Europe. Along the way, all the char­ac­ters meet and fall in love with part­ners who both strength­en and endan­ger them.

Will Lea ulti­mate­ly be able to escape the Nazis? And dar­ing and resource­ful Etti, the rab­bi’s daugh­ter — will she sur­vive? And what will be the ulti­mate fate of the golem?

This beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten nov­el of adven­ture, fan­ta­sy, and love takes us on a jour­ney through a dark time that is both heart-break­ing and uplifting.