The Night of the Burning
This novel tells the true story of Devorah and Nechama Lehrman, the only survivors of a massacre of the Jews in their Polish village by Russian Cossacks. Sent far away to an orphanage, the sisters are chosen by Isaac Ochberg to be among the 200 children he takes to safety in South Africa in 1921.
The story is told in the first person by the eldest, Devorah. Nechama is young enough to recover, but Devorah is deeply traumatised. She is constantly on the alert, anxious to protect her sister and sensing danger everywhere. The orphans stay in London in a grand hotel then travel by ship to South Africa, where they are cared for in another orphanage. The sisters are happy there, but then Nechama is chosen for adoption by a wealthy couple who want only one child. Devorah is distraught, and her first thought is to grab her sister and run. But she soon realises it isn’t as simple as that. For Devorah, a happy ending develops slowly and is all the more satisfying and believable when it comes.
There is a lot of factual information in this story which might have cluttered the narrative, but the author skilfully avoids this by making her main focus the emotions and perceptions of Devorah. The first half of the story is told in alternate chapters: the ‘here and now’ of 1921, and Devorah’s memories of poverty, sickness, and the pogroms in Poland which build to the terrible night of the burning.
It is Devorah’s feelings and the effect she has on others that give this story its power. It tells of appalling events but also of great resourcefulness, courage, and the love and kindness of many people. I found it incredibly moving.