When the World Was Ours

Liz Kessler

By – February 17, 2022

Max Fis­ch­er, Leo Grun­berg, and Elsa Bauer are insep­a­ra­ble friends liv­ing with their fam­i­lies in Vien­na on the eve of World War II. When Leo’s father, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, treats them to a ride on the famed Riesen­rad Fer­ris wheel, the pic­ture he takes of them becomes a sad reminder of the day as his­to­ry unfolds. Their moment look­ing down over the city will be the peak – lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly – of their untrou­bled pre­war existence.

Using parts of her own family’s his­to­ry, Liz Kessler nar­rates the children’s sto­ry from their three dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, tak­ing them from 1938 until the Allies’ vic­to­ry in 1945. Kessler presents both the per­spec­tive of the vic­tims strug­gling to sur­vive and the moti­va­tions of the per­pe­tra­tors who choose to enable the Nazi regime. The nov­el dis­plays a panoram­ic per­spec­tive across time, place, and memory.

Leo and Elsa are Jew­ish; they have nev­er con­sid­ered the fact that Max is non-Jew­ish to be an obsta­cle to their friend­ship. As puni­tive laws and increas­ing acts of vio­lence begin to con­sume their com­mu­ni­ty, both the Grun­bergs and Bauers are emo­tion­al­ly unpre­pared. Kessler cap­tures the seem­ing pas­siv­i­ty and unwill­ing­ness to believe that their world has unal­ter­ably changed that was com­mon to many of Europe’s Jews at the time. Yet both fam­i­lies mobi­lize them­selves for sur­vival, with the Bauers mov­ing to still-unoc­cu­pied Czecho­slo­va­kia and the Grun­bergs pur­su­ing emi­gra­tion to Eng­land for Leo and his mother.

Elsa and Leo’s chap­ters are nar­rat­ed in the first per­son, but Max’s trou­bling evo­lu­tion, from devot­ed friend to cru­el adver­sary, is told from the rel­a­tive dis­tance of the third per­son. When Aus­tri­an schools are instruct­ed to per­se­cute, and even­tu­al­ly remove, Jew­ish stu­dents, Leo at first expe­ri­ences his rever­sal of fate with incom­pre­hen­sion; called to the front of the class­room, along with his Jew­ish class­mates, he won­ders if the teacher is intro­duc­ing a new game. Kessler reflects real­is­ti­cal­ly the thought process­es of chil­dren placed in irra­tional situations.

The novel’s tra­jec­to­ry – from a seem­ing­ly secure child­hood in the cos­mopoli­tan city of Vien­na to exile abroad, con­fine­ment in ghet­tos, and intern­ment in Auschwitz – con­veys the rapid spi­ral of Jew­ish dehu­man­iza­tion. Kessler’s great­est chal­lenge lies in the chron­i­cling of Max’s response to the tor­ments inflict­ed on his friends. The harsh, and even­tu­al­ly sadis­tic, treat­ment of Max by his father, becomes key to the reader’s empa­thy. Max is a child who, unlike his two Jew­ish friends, has nev­er expe­ri­enced the uncon­di­tion­al love of a par­ent. When his father will­ing­ly choos­es total loy­al­ty to a bru­tal regime, Max grad­u­al­ly comes to iden­ti­fy with Nazism and to jus­ti­fy every atroc­i­ty com­mit­ted in its name.

The depth of this seri­ous work offers read­ers a mov­ing and accu­rate immer­sion in his­to­ry. A list of fur­ther resources about the sub­ject mat­ter is included.

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.

Discussion Questions

This is the sto­ry of three child­hood friends — Leo, Elsa, and Max — pre-World War II Vien­na. Leo and Elsa are Jew­ish, Max is not. Max’s right-wing father becomes an SS offi­cer and moves his fam­i­ly to Munich. It is this father who will loom over the final chap­ters of the book. But it is the chil­dren, now teens, who con­tin­ue to cen­ter it, and who will make choic­es that will break your heart.

Based part­ly on a true sto­ry, Kessler deft­ly weaves the three young lives into a friend­ship that lasts through much of the bru­tal begin­nings of the changes in Europe but ends with final­i­ty in the death camps.

The book itself begins in light, as the three chil­dren share every­thing, even won­der­ing which of the boys will mar­ry Elsa. But when their lives are dis­rupt­ed by the hor­rors of the gath­er­ing Nazi storm, there are changes in their per­son­al­i­ties that are care­ful­ly shown by the author’s skilled writ­ing. She takes them across Ger­many, Eng­land, and Poland, thrust­ing them into more and more dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions, strip­ping them of par­ents and friends, until the book takes a haunt­ing and final twist that will not be eas­i­ly forgotten.