The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman is a haunting story about the Holocaust that is mixed with Jewish mysticism. The story follows the survival of parentless Jewish youths in France during this horrific time. The author wrote the story after hearing about the “hidden children’ whose Jewish parents sent them to live in convents and homes of sympathetic French families during World War II.
Ettie, the teenaged daughter of a rabbi in Berlin, is able to create a golem named Ava to protect a younger girl, Lea, from harm during the war. Lea and Ava head to France to hide from the Nazis. After Ettie suffers great loss, she is determined to work with the French Resistance. The other main characters are brothers, Julien and Victor Levy who interact with Lea and Ettie throughout the story.
According to Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature formed out of a lifeless substance such as clay, that is brought to life by ritual incantations and sequences of Hebrew letters. What is interesting about this golem is that she is created by a female, instead of a learned male rabbi. Ava is shaped like a woman and is made to bleed. However, golems have no soul and cannot feel pain or emotions. Ava is required to do the bidding of Ettie, her maker, which is to protect Lea at all costs. Lea is told that she must kill Ava once Lea has been brought to safety. As the story progresses Ava develops more and more human attributes. She also has an intriguing relationship with a heron.
One of the reading guide questions from the publisher is: In one of the darkest periods of human history, why do the characters still yearn to live even as the world is falling apart? What makes life precious? Is it love, family, memory, hope?
This book powerfully addresses those questions along with others including what makes us human and what sets us apart from beasts? What does it mean to make sacrifices?
There were a couple of times when the story drags a little, but overall it is very interesting. The harshness of the Holocaust and the cruelty of men is always front and center. The parental sacrifice and the pain from the loss of parents are also focuses of the novel. This is not a light read. I was deep in emotions when I finished it.
I listened to the Audible version which is narrated by actress Judith Light. It is 10 hrs and 8 mins long. 5-Stars. Book Club Recommended.