The Light at the End of the Day

Written by Eleanor Wasserberg
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1937 Krakow, Poland, Adam Oderfeldt, a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur, commissions a portrait of his younger daughter, Alicia, as her present for her 12th birthday. The artist, Jozef, begins painting Alicia by a window to catch the natural light in the Oderfeldts’ well-appointed apartment. However, it’s her seventeen-year-old sister, Karolina, who catches Jozef’s eye, and they fall in love. The Oderfeldts believe that money can buy happiness and live a lavish lifestyle. Adam keeps a mistress with the knowledge of his wife, Anna. Unfortunately, their opulent world collapses in 1939 when the Germans invade Poland. The Oderfeldts, having ignored the warnings, flee Krakow belatedly. The Germans stop their overloaded automobile. Fortunately, in the confusion, Anna manages to escape with the two daughters in tow. Adam is arrested, and all their belongings, including Alicia’s painting, are seized. Anna and her daughters are transported across Europe. They long to see Adam again, and Karolina pines for Jozef, but most of all, Alicia cries for her painting.

Eleanor Wasserberg has penned this nostalgic novel in a style which reads much like a biography. Indeed, the narrative is based partly on the history of Wasserberg’s own family. The use of Alicia’s portrait, which resembles that of Wasserberg’s great-aunt, helps to accentuate the story. The novel recounts the somewhat obscure details about the Polish Jews who had fled to Ukraine expecting better treatment by the Russians, but were tricked into boarding trains that carried them to Russian work camps. The novel is a bit light on aspects of Karolina’s and Josef’s courtship and details on Adam’s affair with his French mistress. The novel’s characters are shrewdly drawn, and each is given an individual voice, quirks, preferences, and mannerisms that set them apart. A disturbing scene shows, surprisingly, that in pre-war Poland even affluent Jews could be attacked. An interesting and informative novel.