Czernowitz, Ukraine, is the setting for Katerina. After spending forty tumultuous years away from her childhood home, Katerina, an elderly peasant woman, returns to her village to narrate her story about her escape from abusive parents and her life before World War II. When she leaves Czernowitz, the only work available in the city is in Jewish homes. Surrounded by bigotry, she assimilates to the Jewish lifestyle, taking comfort in their rituals, and discovers that Jewish employers treat her better than her own kind.
Katerina sticks to her belief that all people should be treated decently, but she pays a terrible price. As anti-Semitism prevails and her Jewish friends are killed, Katerina is imprisoned for a crime of passion. While in jail, she daily sees long freight trains with Jews going to their deaths, which “aroused a wave of joy” in her fellow inmates. After the war, Katerina is released into a world where her reputation haunts her. She returns to her family’s run-down village to live with her memories of the Jewish friends she once coveted.
The main thread of the plot concerns the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Eastern Europe prior to the Holocaust. It portrays the fragility of life and the lack of control people had in a time when their only sin was their religion. Katerina is an eye-opening, well-constructed tale of a horrendous time in 20th-century history, but the author doesn’t write convincingly from a woman’s viewpoint. While it is a good firsthand portrayal of the historical conflicts, the characters are superficial and lack emotional depth.