The World That We Knew

Written by Alice Hoffman
Review by Viviane Crystal

Magical realism combines with fairy tale in this story of young adults facing death and torture at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Hanni Kohn is determined to save her daughter, Lea. Knowing she lacks the ability to keep Lea safe, Hanni enlists the help of Ettie, daughter of a local rabbi. Ettie performs the ritual necessary to create a golem, Ava, who lives and breathes with a single purpose: to protect, defend, and guide Lea to safety.

The story follows Ettie, Lea, and Ava as they flee Germany. Ava and Lea are taken in by distant relatives of Hanni’s in Paris, where Lea forms an irrevocable bond with Julien, one of the family’s two boys. Ava and Lea pass through a convent school that hides Jewish children, meet a mystical heron who dances with Ava, seek shelter in a remote mountain village, and make their way towards the border. Meanwhile, Ettie hides in the forest, eventually joining the Resistance working against the Germans in France, meeting both Julien’s brother and a doctor who saves lives through more than his medical training.

The darkness of the era is broken up by exquisite moments of tender love, light, and beauty. Characterization in this novel is beyond superb. Multiple characters attempt to navigate this searing period, all believing a new world could evolve after these horrific times. In her darkest hours, Lea hears Hanni’s voice, affirming a mother’s love and presence beyond a physical dimension, a spiritual emanation personified by the golem, providing support throughout Lea’s escape from indescribable evil. I’ve read many Holocaust stories, but The World That We Knew is by far the best work of historical fiction I have encountered on this topic. Words fail to describe its depth, beauty, darkness, and truth – a masterful creation!