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Review: The World That We Knew, by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 2019. 365 pp. $28

In spring 1941, those Jews still left in Berlin live from hand to mouth, managing each day as best they can. But Hanni Kohn, who recognizes her end is near, determines that her twelve-year-old daughter, Lea, will escape. Hanni visits the household of a famous rabbi, seeking a miracle, but he’s not to be disturbed. It’s his seventeen-year-old daughter, Ettie, who agrees to help, and the task is most unusual and occult: to create a golem, who’ll protect Lea and see her to Paris, where she has distant cousins.

The golem, a centuries-old figure in Jewish mysticism and folklore, is a creature made of dust or clay with a human appearance, no soul or feeling, yet with physical powers craved by a people who live in peril. Sixteenth-century Prague provides a famous example of the legend, which Mitchell James Kaplan borrowed for his novel the Fifth Servant. But you can also link the golem to 1930s superheroes, fighters for freedom, and the rule of law in a world tearing itself apart.

Hoffman, however, has a slightly different game in mind:

The figure had cooled into the shape of a woman. She was tall, with long legs and a well-proportioned body. Her hair was flowing and dark, the color of damp soil. The form had been given ruach, the breath of bones, the life force that animates every creature on earth. Its lack of a soul would allow it to perceive the spiritual aspects of the world that no human could ever know or see. Good and evil appeared in their truest forms to a golem, death was easy to perceive and the spirits of the dead could be summoned.

Aptly named Ava, for she can speak to birds, she’s tasked with guiding Lea, Ettie, and her sister, Marta across the border, then to Paris. But Ava’s existence is an affront to God, and as such, must not outlast her usefulness. Once the war ends, she must die.

The narrative therefore relies on magical realism, Hoffman’s trademark, a genre I’ve never taken to. Yet The World That We Knew is a beautiful, passionate novel about life and death, love as miracle and sacrifice, and the nature of grief. It’s also a page-turner.

Just as the escape fails to go as planned for all parties involved, reaching Paris offers less shelter than the refugees hoped. After all, the Germans have invaded, and the French police vigorously help them round up Jews for deportation. Further, the cousins want no part of the refugees, though the younger son, Julien, falls for Lea.

Consequently, “no — and furthermore” abides in these pages, and though the increasing cast of characters has more than its fair share of luck, they suffer losses too. The realism has a magical component but also a satisfyingly hard edge.

Two women in Paris, June 1942, wearing the yellow star that marks them as Jews (courtesy German Federal Archive,
Bild 183-N0619-506, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

At times, the expository storytelling style bothers me, in which Hoffman explains the action. I want to be allowed closer, to be shown what’s happening. Similarly, the historical passages that teach the Holocaust in France sit wrong; they read like lectures and occasionally err in surpassing the knowledge people had at the time, particularly the precise destination of the trains full of deportees and what would happen to them once they got there.

Nevertheless, I understand Hoffman’s temptation to impart this information. I grew up conversant with the Holocaust, partly because my parents came of age during the war, an exposure that today’s generations lack. The author apparently wishes to redress that.

Fortunately, around the time the refugees leave Paris, the narrative kicks into a higher gear, and when it does, the storytelling shifts as well, showing more and explaining less. My favorite character is Ava, who comes to appreciate what life is, why humans cling to it, and its advantages and disadvantages. I like her transformation from unfeeling clay to sensibility very much. With evil pervading the world, it takes courage even to see what’s worthwhile, let alone to act accordingly, the problem the human characters face.

But that issue touches Ava too, in her own way, not least in her relationship with a heron, with whom she dances when his migration flight brings him through France. Also, she has a skill that comes in handy: her ability to perceive the black-robed angel of death, Azriel, as he hovers, waiting his chance to inscribe a victim’s name, a ledger in his hands. This image will stay with me; I think it comes from folklore.

As my regular readers know, I’m particular about Holocaust novels and won’t touch those in which Jews seem mere historical artifacts, depicted for narrative convenience. I’m pleased to say that The World That We Knew swept me away for its moral evocations, characterizations, and sheer imagination.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.