Off the Shelf: Revisiting World War II and its aftermath

by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

During my years as book reviewer for The Reporter, I’ve read more World War II and Holocaust themed novels than I can count. What amazes me is that there are still so many stories to tell and so many different ways to relate them. Some of the novels in this review take place during the war. Others begin after the final battle, but show how mental and physical pain continued long after the last shot was fired. All of them, though, offer glimpses of hope in a world where one might doubt its existence.

“Hannah’s War”              

Not all battles occur on the battlefield. Wars can also be fought – and won – in the laboratory. New, more powerful weaponry allowed Nazi forces to quickly seize parts of Europe in the early years of World War II. During the last year of the war, rumors had it that Germany was working on a new super weapon that would reverse its defeats and help it conquer the world. That’s what the Americans believed and was one reason for the top-secret nuclear laboratory in Los Alamos, NM, which is where Jan Eliasberg’s suspenseful and passionate “Hannah’s War” begins.

The plot focuses on two periods in the life of Hannah Weiss: Berlin in 1938 and New Mexico in 1945. The half-Jewish Hannah is barely tolerated while working at a physics lab in Berlin. She puts up with the derision of her colleagues – who are more than willing to borrow her work without giving her credit – because she needs money to help her Uncle Jacob and her younger cousin, Sabine. Although Hannah’s non-Jewish mother is still alive, her stepfather supports the Nazis and looks at Hannah as an embarrassment to be hidden and ignored. Having lost her father in World War I, Hannah’s dream is to create a physics of peace. 

The novel actually begins, though, in 1948 when Major Jack Delaney arrives in New Mexico with his Jewish associate to discover the identity of the spy they believe is sending secrets to Germany. The head of Los Alamos makes it clear that he resents Jack’s presence and gives Jack a short window of time to uncover the spy and leave. The scientists are close to a breakthrough – to splitting the atom and creating a bomb of unimaginable power – and the army wants nothing to disturb their deliberations. Jack quickly decides that Hannah is the spy, but needs proof. Hannah’s role is far more complex than he imagines and together the two uncover each other’s secrets.

“Hannah’s War” is a wonderful novel that offers much food for thought. Readers will find themselves questioning the morality of the different characters – major and minor alike. However, it is the emotional journey these characters take that creates the greatest depth. The last 50 pages were filled with suspense as I found myself praying for the ending I wanted to see. Eliasberg’s novel is very different from most works about World War II and a welcome addition to the genre.

“They Went Left”

Young adult literature (which was called teen literature when I was that age) has certainly changed over the decades. Take, for example, “They Went Left” by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown and Company). This is not just a novel for teenagers: it is an amazing work of literature for adults. 

Life in a concentration camp left 18-year-old Zofia Lederman weak physically and mentally. What disturbs her most are the blanks in her memory. However, she is clear about one thing: she has to find her younger brother, Abek. She promised him that no matter what happened they would be together when the nightmare was over. That search becomes her life and takes her first to her hometown in Poland, where Jews are still not welcome, and then to displaced persons camps – all the while looking desperately for Abek. During her stay at one camp, she meets Josef, another refugee, who holds a mysterious fascination for her – one she does not always welcome.

I’ve been deliberately vague about plot details so readers can enjoy the surprises. While I did guess the ending, that didn’t detract from the novel. It just showed I noticed the small clues the author offers. Hesse’s main emphasis is on the way survivors embraced life, including marriages between almost strangers in the DP camps. Readers should be aware that, even with the pull of survival, parts of this work are profoundly sad and the last chapters left me in tears. “They Went Left” is a powerful and moving work that can be enjoyed by all ages. 

“The Yellow Bird Sings”

What if you had to risk losing the one you love in order to save their life? That’s the premise behind the lyric “The Yellow Bird Sings” by Jennifer Rosner (Flatiron Books). Roza and her 5-year-old daughter, Shira, are hiding from the Nazis in the hayloft of a neighbor. Roza is unsure how long they’ll be able to stay, but she is already paying an unpleasant price in order to ensure their safety. To keep Shira from revealing their hiding place, she invents a story about a young girl who lives in an enchanted garden with a bright yellow bird. The girl must not make any noise or the giants who wander the garden will do her harm. 

Shira, who doesn’t really understand what’s happening, begins to see the bird – to hear its song – and create music on her own. That is her connection to life before the barn – remembering her family making music – but now she turns the events around her into musical notes. When the barn is no longer safe, Roza makes the difficult decision to let Shira be taken to an orphanage and sets out on her own in the hopes of finding a way to stay alive until she can reclaim her daughter. 

“The Yellow Bird Sings” is beautifully written and, at times, has an almost dream-like quality. It also offers no easy, reader-friendly ending, while ultimately offering glimpses of hope for the future. 

“House on Endless Waters”

If he had followed his late mother’s wishes and never gone to Amsterdam. If he and his wife had not gone to that museum, or if she had not taken the time to sit through a video, he would never have known the one moment that overturned a lifetime of knowledge. That’s what happens to famous Israeli novelist Yael Blum, the main character in in Emuna Elon’s “House on Endless Waters” (Atria Books), when he finally agrees to publicize his latest book in Amsterdam. The museum video clearly shows a baby who was not him – a child who was younger than he would have been at that time. Upon returning to Israel, he speaks to his older sister, who tells him the true story of his life. However, what occurred during World War II is only slowly revealed to the reader after Blum returns to Amsterdam in order to write a new novel, one that will allow him to better understand his mother’s life. 

Blum is the heart of the novel and a fascinating character in that he learns as much about himself as he does about this mother, including the reason why he refuses to connect to other human beings, even his three daughters and his grandchildren. During his time in Amsterdam, Blum explores what life was like for Jews under the Nazi invaders. He wants to know what they felt and why they made the decisions they did. He also meets Jews who were hidden children – those who lived with non-Jews in order to escape Nazi persecution – and how those times still affect them now, years later. 

Elon writes low-key, unemotional prose that echoes Blum’s inner life. However, the suspense and tension build as he comes closer to revealing what really happened. The ending leaves readers with questions to ponder – ones that make you wonder what you might have done in similar circumstances. 

“Serenade for Nadia” 

While neither its narrator, Maya Duran, nor its other major character, visiting Professor Maximilian Wagner, are Jewish, Zulfu Livaneli’s “Serenade for Nadia” (Other Press) does contain several Jewish themes. Livaneli writes about the Jewish professors who were allowed emigrate from Germany and teach in Turkey during World War II, and a ship of 800 Jewish refugees who lost their lives off the coast of Turkey in 1942 when help for their almost-wrecked ship was denied. 

However, in 2001, Maya, who works at Istanbul University, is more concerned with helping Maximilian enjoy his stay than she is with the history of Turkey – at least, at first. Her job becomes complicated when security forces follow Maximilian and the army, including Maya’s military brother, warn her to carefully note what the professor is doing. Why they are interested in the professor and what Maya learns about hidden parts of Turkish history makes for complex, impressive reading. It also shows that Jews were not the only victims of human cruelty during the 20th century. 

“The Light After the War”

Building a new life from scratch: that’s not an easy thing to do as Vera Frankel discovers in “The Light After the War” by Anita Abriel (Atria Books). Vera and her best friend, Edith Ban, leave Hungary for Italy after the war because neither can bear to return to their former homes. With no family left but each other, they look for a way to start over and, if possible, make their childhood dreams of being a writer (Vera) and a fashion designer (Edith) come true. Although at first things go well for Vera, she soon loses the little she has and wonders how it will be possible to continue. An unexpected piece of luck sends them to North America, but when circumstances change, they head to Caracas, where they find different paths to survival. 

At times, the plot of “The Light After the War” verges on the melodramatic. (To give details would spoil the many surprises that do occur.) The most interesting parts showed the cultural differences between Europe and South America, particularly when it comes to the role of women – especially married women. The novel is based on the life of the author’s mother, but I would have loved more details about what really occurred and what is fiction. If it accurately echoes her mother’s history, then her life was an amazing roller coaster of emotional highs and lows.