We Were Strangers Once

Written by Betsy Carter
Review by Ellen Keith

This is a gorgeous, heartbreaking book. In the current political climate, I’ve had a difficult time reading WWII-era fiction, as there are so many parallels to the present-day intolerance of the “other,” let alone the recurrence of fascism. This book, however tough a read, is beautiful in its characters’ resilience and reminders of the contributions immigrants have made to this country.

Carter starts her narrative in pre-war Germany, with the love story of naturalist Rudolph Schneider and his wife, illustrator Elisabeth. Their son, Egon, inherited their attention to detail and became an ophthalmologist, fascinated with the workings of the eye. He had a successful practice in Berlin, following his parents’ deaths, but growing anti-Semitism in 1938 drove him out of Germany to New York, where he becomes a grocery store clerk in Washington Heights. At least he has his group of fellow immigrants for companionship, although feathers are ruffled when he falls in love with Irish Catholic Catrina. Catrina has had hardships of her own, but she and Egon are drawn together, sharing a mutual love of animals. Egon puts his medical knowledge to use by operating a makeshift veterinary service out of his apartment. His college roommate, Meyer, who writes for the German language paper Aufbau, persuades his friend to be the subject of a feature and from there he draws the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He also finds that anti-Semitism isn’t limited to Germany.

There is not a false note in this book. Carter has created a vivid world, from Egon’s parents to his friends, lovers, and adversaries. Their stories are unique and distinctive, and yet their struggles feel familiar. Could this be required reading for anyone who seeks to keep refugees out of this country?