The world that we knew by Alice Hoffman
Simon and Schuster, 2019. ISBN: 9781471185830.
(Age: Adolescent readers, with support) This beautifully written and most unsettling narrative captures our imagination instantly, plunging us into the terror of the German government's plan to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe. From our 21st century point of view this vile scheme was dire and inhumane. Yet it happened and Alice Hoffman delves into the agony and terror faced by people who were simply 'wrong' in one government's notion of what makes some people simply unacceptable, thereby justifying getting rid of them. While we know that horrendous crimes against people for no more than their religious beliefs and lifestyle have taken place over the years of human history, this story is one that speaks of brutality at its worst and of dreadful injustice, of despicable treatment of both children and adults, all apparently embedded in the notion that those who are unwanted can simply be eradicated.
Helped by good people in France, who ask no questions but offer shelter, and sometimes food, the fleeing girls go on their perilous journey. They spend time in barns, on farms and in a school where they are disguised as locals. Terrified for her children's lives, one mother realises that she cannot flee with children as they will almost certainly be apprehended if she accompanies them, so, in desperation, she creates a golem, a Jewish mystical creature created from the materials of the earth, to guard and guide her daughter. This mystical element is deeply embedded in the narrative, and is representative of the trust in the elements of our universe to be good, kind and trusting, as we see in the decency of those who offer sanctuary to the strangers. The golem leads them to safety, as they travel away from all that they know and those whom they loved in their own world, to a world that is unknown but offers them the chance of a future. This decision is critical, agonising and indicative of the enormous trust in God that this women's actions suggest.
The book is suitable for adolescent readers, with guidance and support, as it details how parents would know that the only chance for their children to live is to flee without parents, as this would imperil them, to be recognized as fleeing Jews.