They Went Left

  • Review
By – July 20, 2020

After World War II, the rem­nants of Europe’s Jews were forced to find a place to start a new life in a shat­tered world. Mon­i­ca Hesse’s young adult nov­el, They Went Left, fol­lows the expe­ri­ence of Zofia Led­er­man, a sur­vivor from Poland who lost almost every­one in the Auschwitz-Birke­nau death camp. The book’s title refers to the noto­ri­ous sep­a­ra­tion of the camp’s inmates into two groups, those who would be sub­ject­ed to slave labor, depri­va­tion, and tor­ture, and the oth­ers who were imme­di­ate­ly mur­dered. When the nov­el begins, that process is long over. Zofia has been lib­er­at­ed from the Grosse-Rosen camp by Sovi­et forces and is set­ting out on a jour­ney from her native Poland to Ger­many. Her only goal is to locate her younger broth­er, Abek, but she is only one among many on a dev­as­tat­ed con­ti­nent hop­ing that some­one from her past is still alive. Hesse has cre­at­ed in Zofia a com­plex char­ac­ter, deter­mined to return home with Abek and start her life anew, yet tor­ment­ed by self-doubt.

They Went Left is a work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, as well as a mys­tery and an explo­ration of the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of sur­vivors of the Holo­caust. Zofia relives her life before the war and the destruc­tion of her fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty, try­ing to con­struct a nar­ra­tive of the past which will enable her to live in the present and future. A skilled seam­stress, she sews words into the lin­ings of gar­ments, a metaphor for her abil­i­ty to pre­serve her own sto­ry and those whom she loves. Arriv­ing at the dis­placed per­sons camp of Foehren­wald in Allied-occu­pied Ger­many, Zofia meets oth­er young Jews, some plan­ning to set­tle in Pales­tine. Although her brief return to Poland had exposed her to con­tin­ued anti­semitism, she can­not com­mit to an alter­na­tive future until she finds Abek.

Zofia becomes roman­ti­cal­ly involved with Josef, a fel­low res­i­dent of the camp; their rela­tion­ship is char­ac­ter­ized by ambiva­lence and grief. Nei­ther one trusts the oth­er, while Zofia’s friend, Breine, who has lost her first fiancé, is prepar­ing to mar­ry a man she has known for only five weeks because he’s here, I’m here, and we’re ready to not be lone­ly togeth­er.” Zofia is unable to adjust her expec­ta­tions and to com­pro­mise, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for her to accept that the post-war life of sur­vivors is defined by crushed expec­ta­tions and the inevitabil­i­ty of loss. The descrip­tions of Zofia’s strong sex­u­al attrac­tion to Josef are tinged by the vio­lence of their past. In one trou­bling scene, as part of their inti­ma­cy they exchange evi­dence of the phys­i­cal abuse they’ve both endured.

The dra­mat­ic ten­sion of the nov­el encom­pass­es Zofia’s search for Abek as well as the fate of oth­ers with whom she inter­acts in a com­plete­ly altered world. The book’s cen­tral mys­tery is the ques­tion of how and when Zofia will assem­ble the frag­ments of her past and cre­ate a vision for her future.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed nov­el includes A Note on His­to­ry and Research,” with use­ful infor­ma­tion and context.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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