Celebrating Jewish Literature: Deciding the children’s fates

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It’s not unusual for novels to focus on a similar topic. In fact, this happens a great deal with those about World War II and its aftermath. The latest trend is works that look at the effect the war had on hidden children, those separated from their parents and protected by people willing to risk their lives for love or money, or to save a soul. The first novel looks at what happened to these children after the war, the second on the way hiding changed one child and the third on what occurred during the war. All left me with thoughts not only about how little these children understood their fate, but what should, or should not, have happened to them once the war was over. 

“Once We Were Home”

Jennifer Rosner’s “Once We Were Home” (Flatiron Books) focuses on four children who lived through World War II. Roger was hidden in a monastery: his baptism occurred only when his relatives hoped to claim him after the war. Ana remembers her birth parents and the journey that brought her and her brother, Oscar, to their new home. Unfortunately, Oscar has no memory of them and wants to remain with the parents whom he has grown to love and who now love him and Ana. Yet, Ana clings to the memory of their birth parents and her life before the war. Renata, whose story begins in the 1960s, visits Israel for an archeological dig and is forced to confront questions about her late mother’s life she never pondered before. 

It soon becomes clear that Roger, Ana and Oscar will emigrate to Israel after the war. Roger is welcomed by an aunt and uncle who are overjoyed to have found him. Ana and Oscar are not willingly given up by their protectors; however, Ana embraces the woman who helps them leave Europe and is happy to live on a kibbutz once they arrive in Israel. Oscar, though, doesn’t feels at home and misses Europe. In fact, all three have difficulties in adjusting after years pretending to be something other than who they once were. For example, even though Roger is happy to be with family, he remains confused by his mixed feelings toward both Judaism and Christianity: as someone who has been circumcised and baptized, where does he truly belong? How Regina ties to their stories is revealed only toward the end of the novel. However, she is not the only person to be surprised to discover her true heritage. 

“Once We Were Home” is well done, both moving and thought provoking. The author offers no simple answers because there are none. What she does do is provide an excellent look at the way World War II affected adults and children decades after it ended.

“At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf”

Some novels use interesting devices to show how their characters change over the years. For example, each section of “At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf” by Tara Ison (Ig Publishing) opens with a school essay written by Marie-Jeanne Chantier about her life. But, as Marie-Jeanne notes, that first essay is “all lies, every word of it.” Marie-Jeanne Chantier – the Christian orphan, the 12-year-old niece of Tante Berthe and Tonton Claude, and cousin of their son, Luke – does not exist. Marie-Jeanne is really Jewish Danielle Marton, whose father was murdered by the Nazis early in their occupation of France. Danielle’s mother brought her to live with former employees of Danielle’s grandparents in the hope that they would protect her.
Marie-Jeanne has difficulty adjusting to farm life after having lived in Paris, but slowly becomes used to the slower pace and begins to make friends. Although one friend is Jewish, she never reveals her own identity. She also starts wondering if her mother deserted her for reasons that had nothing to do with the war. Then Marie-Jeanne begins to suppress all memories of her past: it makes life so much easier to forget everything that occurred before she arrived. Problems arise when she begins to accept the fascist ideas preached by Claude and Luc. That acceptance creates additional problems, ones that may cause harm to those who helped her.

It’s difficult to write about the ending of “At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf” without revealing too much of the plot, which raises some of the same questions as “Once We Were Home.” The novel will leave readers debating Marie-Jeanne’s final choice and what will occur once the last page of the novel is turned. Also open for debate are the reasons why Berthe and Claude risked their lives for someone not of their blood. Ultimately, the novel explores how circumstances beyond their control can change people, for the good and for the bad. 

“The Dutch Orphan”

The plot Ellen Keith’s “The Dutch Orphan” (Park Row Books) focuses less on the title character than on two sisters whose lives are forever changed when the Nazis invade Amsterdam. Johanna is horrified by the way the Nazis treat her Jewish musician friends and, with her husband Willem who works at the zoo, finds way to help them and other Jews hide or escape. Unfortunately, Johanna’s sister Liesbeth has just married Maurits, a Nazi sympathizer whose main concerns are making money and rising in society. 

The two sisters, who were once very close, find politics coming between them. Johanna doesn’t trust her sister, especially when someone betrays those helping the Jewish musicians. Liesbeth misses her sister, but feels she must support her husband, even when he complains about her inability to have children. The sisters’ relationship becomes even chillier when Johanna accidentally becomes pregnant.

The Dutch orphan of the title comes into Johanna’s life after her own baby is a still birth and she’s asked to save the child of a Jewish couple. Will baby Aletta be safe with Johanna, especially if she continues her resistance activities? Plus, how will she and her sister relate now that Johanna has what Liesbeth most desires? 

The ending of “The Dutch Orphan” raised questions that readers might not have considered without having read these three novels together. Johanna, Willem and Liesbeth love Aletta, but the novel leaves open questions the author doesn’t consider: after the war, will they try to discover if Aletta has any living relatives or will they continue to consider her their daughter? And will they ever tell her the true story of her life? That this is not discussed doesn’t diminish the power and suspense this novels holds. In fact, if read alone, these questions might never have risen. But it’s difficult not to consider them after reading “Once We Were Home” and “At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf.” 


What struck me when reading these novels is that the children involved had no real understanding of what was happening to them. Being deserted by a parent is one of the most traumatic events that can occur to a child, yet no one explained to them the reasons behind this desertion. But how could anyone have explained why and how the Nazis were exterminating the Jewish population of Europe? And would the children have truly understood even if they did?

These novels also raise an additional question: What was the correct way to deal with these children after the war? I can understand the many points of views the novels revealed. For children who had no memory of their lives before the war, it’s understandable that they might want to stay with the only parents they had ever known. However, I also wondered – especially for boys who were circumcised – whether these children would have been safe if their Jewish ancestry became known. Also, should Jewish families who were searching for any living relatives have been denied the right to regain what little family remained? These children would then live with those who looked like them and could share stories of their birth parents and extended families. While it may have seemed cruel to tear Jewish children from those who saved them, the desire to save as many Jewish souls after the destruction of the Holocaust made the wishes of individual children seem less important for those looking to rescue them. For those rescuers, keeping the Jewish people alive trumped all other consideration. Unfortunately, there is no one answer; these novels made it possible to feel for each and every person involved.