Alice Hoffman’s “The World That We Knew” is an achingly beautiful fairy tale about the Holocaust. Her novel emphasizes the plight of children separated from their parents: Jewish children and the offspring of Resistance Fighters hiding with false ID’s in convent schools; others roaming by themselves or in small groups in the forest, foraging for food; even a toddler left alone on the steps of a chateau while his mother is inside being raped by a Nazi captain.
But this is merely the backdrop. Hoffman’s main story is that of Hanni, a German-Jewish mother who will do anything to save her 12-year-old daughter, Lea. Of course she is willing to give up her life, but she’s also willing to sell her soul. She enters into a bargain with Ettie, the 19-year-old daughter of a rabbi who is equally desperate to get herself and her little sister Marta out of Berlin. Hanni pays Ettie to create a female golem, a living creature fashioned from river water, clay, Hanni’s tears, and Marta’s menstrual blood. The creature, whom they name Ava, is animated when mystical prayers, derived from the Hebrew alphabet, are carved on her arm and chanted aloud.
The story flows smoothly even as Lea and Ava part ways with Ettie and Marta. The golem faithfully sets out to fulfill her existential purpose as Lea’s protector. But Ettie, who dared to play God by creating life in this manner, has a much harder road ahead of her.
There is magic and suspense as the girls have separate adventures. But through it all we see Ava, the golem, a purportedly soulless creature, falling in love with the world. She is amazed at the taste of plums, the scent of the forest, the song-chatter of birds. She develops a mysterious, joyful, seemingly mate-like relationship with a heron who has lost his avian mate. He follows Ava and Lea everywhere, he delivers messages like a carrier pigeon, and at night in fields and beside streams, he and Ava dance together.
The novel wonders, what does it mean to have a soul? Can you grow a soul out of love? Can you lose your soul through a desperate act?—even if the only purpose is to protect the one you love?
Before concluding, I must mention that I have no idea if Alice Hoffman intended any political message here. On the surface, it wouldn’t appear so. Yet I don’t want to forget that this novel appeared now, in 2020, at this point in history, when refugee crises all over the world are tearing us apart. There is no answer here, only a reminder of the pain of human suffering, and a plea for compassion.
Finally there is both sadness and joy at novel’s end. I’d like to think the conclusion proves the Universe (or God) forgives human frailty and treasures human sensuality, human emotion, human love.
To read more short essays and flash fiction, please download a free copy of my e-book Wild Imaginings, by filling out the form on your right.
Photo by Good Free Photos on Unsplash.