The World That We Knew is the twenty-eighth stand-alone novel by best-selling American author, Alice Hoffman. By 1941, life is difficult and dangerous for Jews living in Berlin. Widow Hanni Kohn knows they must escape, but her mother’s paralysis means she can’t leave. To send her beloved twelve-year-old daughter, Lea alone to family in Paris would be folly, so she uses her last resort, precious family jewels, to pay for a protector.
Ettie is the eldest daughter of a rabbi, and has surreptitiously absorbed his teachings and rituals. When her mother unreservedly refuses to help Hanni, Ettie claims to know how to create a golem. Her price: passage on the night train to Paris for her sister Marta and herself. The golem that the women create is unlike any other: a woman whose only mission is to keep Lea safe. But a golem which exists too long becomes too powerful, and when Lea later learns what she must ultimately do, she is torn.
In Paris, Lea and her “cousin”, Ava join the household of Professor Andre Levi, whose maid, Marianne, has just abandoned her post to return to her father on his farm. Ava’s powers allow her to easily fill the role, but her surveillance of Lea cannot prevent the close connection that forms between her and young Julien Levi, no matter who disapproves. But Paris, too, is becoming unsafe for Jews, and Ava removes Lea to another shelter. Lea barely has time to implore Julien “Stay alive.” Who knows if they will ever see each other again.
This is a story that spans the years of the Second World War and ranges from Berlin to Paris to several parts of country France. Information about the golem and other mystical aspects is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. The cast of characters is not small, but many of them connect and reconnect, if only fleetingly. These represent the many real-life brave, generous, ordinary people who had a myriad of reasons to help the persecuted and resist the oppressor.
The circumstances of minor characters are often detailed using a small vignette of their lives. Where they encounter Ava, Hoffman uses the golem’s power of knowledge to note the fate of their loved ones and she frequently takes the opportunity to include the staggering statistics about the incarceration and death of those persecuted by the Nazi regime. To make it more interesting, she throws her characters the occasional dilemma.
Of course, among the many deaths, Hoffman realistically does not spare all of her protagonists for a Hollywood happy-ever-after. But rather than concentrating on atrocities, Hoffman makes this a moving and uplifting tale by showcasing those kind and charitable characters, giving them a starring role. Readers should be ready for some lump-in-the-throat moments. A stirring and thought-provoking read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon and Schuster