Off the Shelf: Jews and war – before, during and after – part 1

For the past several years, I’ve written a year-end, two-part book review to catch up on the number of novels about World War II that multiply on my to-read pile. Although I was expecting to do the same for this year, something different happened. One book that I thought was about World War II actually took place in Russia just as World War I was beginning. Then I realized two works that reference World War II actually take place after the war. This led me to expand a bit the time period covered. What all of the novels have in common is their view of Jewish life during periods of crisis: no matter where they live, war is never good for the Jewish community.
“A Bend in the Stars” 
In pre-World War I Russia, it wasn’t easy to be Jewish. In fact, German Jews were thought to be far luckier, at least according to Rachel Barenbaum’s “A Bend in the Stars” (Grand Central Publishing). Some Russian Jews were protected – those who were considered “useful” to the state. Even so, Vanya Abramov knows that his colleagues and students at the university consider him a Jew before they think of him as a mathematician. However, not even being useful may save Vanya when the czar of Russia needs cannon fodder for his war against Germany. Vanya and his sister, Miri, realize that it’s time to leave the country with their only living relative, their grandmother, even though this will prevent Miri, a physician, from becoming Russia’s only woman surgeon.
Vanya’s great hope is to solve a question about Einstein’s theory of relativity, something he believes will get him hired by an American university. After leaving with Miri’s fiancé, Yuri, in search of the information he needs to complete his mathematical equations, Vanya plans to meet Miri and their grandmother, and then sneak out of the country with them. Unfortunately, plans go awry. Instead of traveling with their grandmother, Miri sets out to find her brother with the aid of Sasha, a wounded soldier she’s rescued. With communication difficult and enemies looking for Miri and her brother, the question becomes whether each will be successful in their search. Will Vanya solve his scientific riddle? Will Sasha serve as an aid or a hindrance? Most important, will the siblings escape from a land that permits its citizens to persecute and murder its Jewish population?
This brief outline of the plot doesn’t do justice, though, to the novel’s depth of character. Vanya and Miri’s passion for their work plays an important role in their lives. Vanya lives and breathes science. Although Miri loves her fiancé, she also dreams of being a surgeon – of being able to save lives. Both Yuri and Sasha are keeping secrets that show just how horrible life can be for Jews in Russia. In fact, underlying the whole story is the precarious nature of Jewish life in that country, a place where the members of the Jewish community are considered blameworthy no matter how and where they live.
“A Bend in the Stars” is a tale of heroes and cowards, a story filled with love and passion. This dramatic work will keep readers on the edge of their seats as they quickly turn pages to discover how the different plot elements finally come together.
How much should people sacrifice for the good of their nation? Are individuals more or less important than the general good? And what if those sacrifices include destroying the ones we love? Those questions are explored in “Wunderland” by Jennifer Cody Epstein (Crown Publishers), which takes place in New York City in 1989 and in Berlin during the Nazi era. The answers to these questions affect more than one generation.
Ava Fisher is upset to learn that her estranged mother, Ilse, has died. Her death leave unanswered the many questions Ava has about the past. Ilse refused to speak of her work during World War II or talk about her relationship to Ava’s unknown father. Why was Ava placed in an orphanage after her grandparents died? Why did it take so long for her mother to claim her once the war ended? Even more puzzling are the letters included in the package announcing her mother’s death. They are addressed to Renate Bauer, someone whose name is completely unfamiliar to Ava. Who is Renate and why did Ilse write her letters that she knew she was never going to send? 
What Ava doesn’t know is that her mother and Renate were once great friends. In fact, the two were practically inseparable until Ilse became enamored with the Nazi cause. She is drawn to the Nazis because they make her feel her life has meaning and purpose. Renate, too, wants to be part of that world until she learns her own family’s secret – that her father is Jewish. Ilse so believes in the cause that she abandons her friend – at least, in public, but, in her heart, she finds herself talking to Renate, even though they can no longer be friends. 
Ava’s story works in reverse – going back in time – while Ilse’s tale moves forward from her early years until the stories overlap and readers learn what really happened. I was expecting some type of surprise: the fact that it created such emotion – there were tears in my eyes as I read the end of the novel – shows just how powerful and moving “Wunderland” is. I came to care about everyone – even Ilse – because Epstein is clear-eyed about her characters’ faults and virtues. The author also shows how easy it is to delude ourselves into believing the greater good of our actions outweighs the pain – a reminder we still need today.
“The World That We Knew”
I’ve mixed feelings about Alice Hoffman’s novels and was fully prepared to pass on her latest work “The World That We Knew” (Simon and Schuster). Then I read that one of the characters was a golem. Since I’m a sucker for works containing that mystical creature, I asked for a review copy and am so glad that I did. However, those who prefer realistic fiction should not be put off by the other worldly aspects of the book (which include visions of angels and demons) because it’s the human element – the power of love – that makes the novel work.
After her 12-year-old daughter, Lea, is attacked by a Nazi soldier, Hanna Kohn knows the only way to protect Lea is for her to leave the country. Hanna can’t help Lea escape because she doesn’t want to leave her mother, who is too ill to flee. In a desperate attempt to protect Lea, Hanna visits a rabbi rumored to have created a golem. It is the rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, though, who created the creature – a woman golem they named Ava. Hanna charges Ava to take care of Lea as if she were her own. Ava so promises, and Ava and Lea, along with Ettie and her sister, travel toward Paris. 
Once in Paris, Ava and Lea take refuge in the house of a distant relative. There Lea finds her soul mate, something that gives her hope she will survive after the Nazi invasion of France. Missing her mother and unsure of why Ava stays with her, Lea resents her caregiver. Ava, however, learns what it means to care for someone as much, if not more, than you care for yourself. Additional characters help create depth, especially those helping Jews flee from the Nazis. Learning the reasons they risk their lives for strangers shows a different side of the war; some of these sections are based on actual events.
“The World That We Knew” got under my skin in a way I didn’t expect. It’s difficult to combine fantasy elements with the events of World War II, but the mystical themes didn’t overwhelm the reality and horrors that occurred during the war. At one point, Ettie wishes she had created golems for all the children threatened by the Nazis – in fact, to have created an army of golems to fight against them. Instead, the characters risk their own lives to defeat evil. Underlying their efforts is the power of love.