For readers who enjoy beautifully written historical fiction and those who harbor a love of fairy tales, Alice Hoffman's The World That We Knew is the next book you'll want to read (available September 24th). The World That We Knew is about the bond between mother and child, love that blossoms even in the midst of unspeakable horror, and brave souls who risk certain death to save the lives of innocent strangers.
Hoffman's novel begins in Berlin in the spring of 1941. Hanni Kohn is left with no choice but to get her 12-year-old daughter, Lea, out of Germany if she has any hope of saving her life. Hanni will do anything to for Lea, even something as dangerous as soliciting the creation of a mystical golem to act as her protector. Ettie is a rabbi's daughter, wise beyond her years, and when Hanni comes to her home pleading for help, Ettie takes matters into her own hands. They call the golem Ava, and so begins a story that travels through years of hardships, love, and loss. The World That We Knew made my heart ache and also gave me hope--it reminded me of the good that exists even when it seems that evil is everywhere and overwhelming.
Below is a letter from Alice Hoffman reproduced from the advance reader's edition of The World That We Knew, and an excerpt from the book.
For me, a novel can begin with a character, as it did with Rachel Pizzarro in The Marriage of Opposites; or with a place, Masada in The Dovekeepers; or a situation—What is it like to be cursed in matters of love?—in The Rules of Magic. The World That We Knew came into being completely by accident, although I now believe it was meant to be. I’d given a reading at a library in Florida, and afterward I discovered an attractive older woman waiting for me in the parking lot. She introduced herself and immediately told me I needed to write her life story.
I was apologetic as I told her I couldn’t possibly do as she asked. I believed there were two types of fiction writers: those who wanted to explore and explain their own histories and those who wished to escape their lives. I had always been an escapist reader, and I had become an escapist writer. My interests were fairy tales, myths, and folktales. I wanted to create new fictional worlds.
“But you must,” the woman in the parking lot said. “Otherwise people will forget.”
She revealed that she had been a hidden child in France during World War II, and although she was a Jew, she had been sent to a convent by her parents to be raised as a Catholic. Her parents’ great sacrifice was the reason she had not been arrested by the French police or German soldiers. It was the reason she had survived. But would the story also survive, or would people forget the cruelty of the time? That was her worry. Would people remember?
I had to leave, and so I thanked her and we soon said our goodbyes. I didn’t get her name or the details of her life. I didn’t yet realize that her life story, the tale of a child separated from her parents, is the central motif of many fairy tales, reaching the most vulnerable parts of our hearts and souls and engaging our deepest fears. When you lose your child the future vanishes. When you lose your parent the world ends.
I’ve come to understand that fairy tales are perhaps the most autobiographical of all stories, containing the deepest psychological truths. They are the original stories, handed down from grandmothers to grandchildren, told by firelight or starlight. Each one is a cautionary tale. These are the stories that explain the sorrow of real life, but also assure us that once upon a time there was a woman or a girl who managed to rescue herself.
Once you tell a story, you are not forgotten. This is what our grandmothers wanted us to know, and what I realized while writing about the journey of three characters who refused to be silent: Lea, a young girl who is sent away from Berlin to ensure that she will survive; Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi, who is as brave in the real world as she is in the world of magic; and Ava, a mythic being whose only purpose is to protect the stranger who affects her life in ways she could not have imagined.
Fairy tales tell us that we may be lost, we may be forsaken, but there is a path.
To the woman who set me on the path that led me to this book, thank you for finding me. After all this time, I remembered.
If you do not believe in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand. But if you do believe, you may see it everywhere, in every cellar, in every tree, along streets you know and streets you’ve never been on before. In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. Her husband, Simon, was murdered on a winter afternoon during a riot outside the Jewish Hospital on Iranische Strasse, which was miraculously still functioning despite the laws against the Jews. He had spent the afternoon saving two patients’ lives by correcting the flow of blood to their hearts, then at a little past four, as a light snow was falling, he was killed by a gang of thugs. They stole the wedding ring from his finger and the boots from his feet. His wife was not allowed to go to the cemetery and bury him, instead his remains were used for animal feed. Hanni tore at her clothes, as tradition dictated; she covered the mirrors in their apartment and sat in mourning with her mother and daughter for seven days. During his time as a doctor Simon Kohn had saved 720 souls. Perhaps on the day that he left Olam HaZeh, the world that we walk through each living day, those who had been saved were waiting for him in Olam HaBa, the World to Come. Perhaps his treatment there, under the eyes of God, was that which he truly deserved. As for Hanni, there was not enough room in the world for the grief that she felt.
In Berlin evil came to them slowly and then all at once. The rules changed by the hour, the punishments grew worse, and the angel in the black coat wrote down so many names in his Book of Death there was no room for the newly departed. Each morning people needed to check the ever-changing list of procedures to see what they were allowed to do. Jews were not al- lowed to have pets or own radios or telephones. Representatives from the Jewish community center had recently gone through the neighborhood asking people to fill out forms with their names and addresses, along with a list of all of their belongings, including their underwear, their pots and pans, their silverware, the paintings on the walls, the nightgowns in their bureau draw- ers, their pillows, the rings on their fingers. The government said they must do so in order for proper records of valuables to be made during a time of reorganization under the Nazi regime, but this was not the reason. It was easy to lie to people who still believed in the truth. Only days afterward, each person who had filled out this list was deported to a death camp.
As the months passed, the world became smaller, no larger than one’s own home. If you were lucky, a couch, a chair, a room became the world. Now, as spring approached, Jewish women were no longer allowed on the street except for the hour between four and five in the afternoon. They filed out of their houses all at once, stars sewn to their coats, searching for food in a world where there was no food, with no money to buy anything, and yet they lingered in the blue air, startled by the new leaves on the trees, stunned to discover that in this dark world spring had come again.
On this day, Hanni was among them. But she was not looking to buy anything. That was not where fate had led her. In a matter of months, Hanni had become a thief. She was fairly certain that her crimes wouldn’t stop there, and if people wished to judge her, let them. She had a mother who was unable to leave her bed due to paralysis and a twelve-year-old daughter named Lea, who was too smart for her age, as many children now were. She looked out the window and saw there were demons in the trees. The stories Hanni’s mother had told her as a child had now been told to Lea. They were tales to tell when children needed to know not all stories ended with happiness. Girls were buried in the earth by evil men and their teeth rose up through the mud and became white roses on branches of thorns. Children were lost and could never find their way home and their souls wandered through the forest, crying for their mothers.
Grandmother was called Bobeshi. She had been born in Russia and in her stories wolves ruled the snowy forests, they knew how to escape from the men on horseback who carried rifles and shot at anything that moved, even the angels. Lea was a shy, intelligent girl, always at the top of her class when school had been in session and Jews were allowed to attend. She sat close to Bobeshi while the old woman told how as a girl she had walked alone to a great, rushing river to get water each morning. Once a black wolf had approached her, coming so close she could feel his breath. They had stared at each other, and in that moment she’d felt that she knew him and that he knew her in return. In stories a wolf might have torn her to shreds, but this one ran back through the trees, a beautiful black shadow with a beating heart. A wolf will seldom attack, Bobeshi always said, only when it is wounded or starving. Only when it must survive.
Hanni Kohn was not the sort of person to give in to demons, although she knew they now roamed the streets. Everywhere there were ruach ra’ah, evil spirits, and malache habbala, angels of destruction. Her husband had saved so many people she refused to believe his life had meant nothing. It would mean, she had decided, that no matter what, their daughter would live. Lea would live and she would save more souls, and so it would go, on and on, until there was more good in the world than there was evil. They could not let it end this way. Hanni had no choice but to survive until their daughter was safe. She found ruined gardens and dug in the earth for young onions and shallots, from which she fashioned a family recipe called Hardship Soup, made from cabbage and water, a food that sustained them while others were starving. She went out after curfew to cut branches from bushes in the park so they might have wood to burn in their stove even though the smoke was bitter. Dressed all in black so that she would be nearly invisible, she ventured into the muck of the river Spree, where she caught fish with her bare hands, even though doing so was a serious offense punishable by lashings and prison and deportation. The fish sighed in her hands, and she apologized for taking their lives, but she had no choice, and she fried them for dinner. She was a wolf, from a family of wolves, and they were starving.
Her plan was to steal from the tailor’s shop where she had once worked. In the last years of her husband’s life, Jewish doc- tors had been paid nothing, and she had become a seamstress to support the family. It was a talent that came to her naturally. She had always sewn clothes for her mother and daughter, all made with tiny miraculous stitches that were barely visible to the naked eye. But now the Jewish shops had all been destroyed or given over to Aryan owners. The only work for Jews was forced labor in factories or camps; one had to hide from the roundups when the soldiers came in search of able-bodied people, for this kind of work was meant to grind workers into dust. In a time such as this it wasn’t difficult to become a thief, all you needed was hunger and nerve. Hanni had decided to bring her daughter along. Lea was tall and looked older than her age; she would be a good student when it came to thievery. She understood her grandmother’s stories. Demons were on the streets. They wore brown uniforms, they took whatever they wanted, they were cold-blooded, even though they looked like young men. This is why Lea must learn how to survive. She was to remain in the alleyway while Hanni went to search for anything left behind by looters. If anyone came near she was to call out so that her mother could flee the shop and avoid arrest. She held her mother’s hand, and then she let go. Lea was only a girl, but that didn’t matter anymore. She knew that. Be a wolf, her grandmother had told her.
She was waiting for her mother, standing on broken glass, hidden in the shadows as Hanni rummaged through the shop. Hanni knew where tins of tea and beans were stored for the employees’ lunch, and where the best satin ribbon was kept, and, if they hadn’t yet been stolen, where the shop owner hid a few silver teaspoons inherited from a great-aunt.
Lea heard footsteps. The alley seemed darker and she had the urge to flee even though she’d been told to stay where she was. Should she call for her mother? Should she whistle or shout? She had a bleak shivery feeling, as if she had fallen through time to find herself in Bobeshi’s village. Before she could decide whether or not to run, he was looming there, a man in his twenties, a soldier in the German army. His eyes flicked over her and she shrank from his gaze. In his presence Lea immediately lost the power of speech. He was a demon and he took her voice from her and held it in his hand. He grinned, as though he’d picked up the scent of something delicious, something he wasn’t about to let get away. No one wants to be the rabbit, standing motionless in an alley, ready to be devoured.
“Beweg dich nicht,” he told her. Don’t move.
She was only a girl, but the soldier saw her not just for who she was, but for who she would be. For him, that was more than enough. He ran a hand over her long blond hair. Right then and there, she belonged to him. He didn’t have to tell anyone else, or share her, or even think what he would do with her after. This was what it was like, she thought. This was the trap.
“Schön,” he told her as he petted her. Beautiful.
One touch and he changed her. This was the way dark enchantments worked, without logic, without cause. You are one thing and then the world pitches and you are something else
entirely. A bitter fear was rising inside of Lea. Without knowing anything about what men and women did, she knew what came next. She’d felt it when he touched her. Ownership and desire.
When the soldier signaled for her to follow him down the alley, she knew she should not go. She was shivering, and her throat was burning, as if she had swallowed fire. It’s not easy for a girl to face a demon, but she forced herself to speak.
“My mother said to wait.”
The soldier grabbed Lea and shook her by the shoulders. He shook her so hard her teeth hurt and her heart ached. She thought about her father opening people’s hearts and putting them back together again.
“I don’t give a damn what your mother said,” the soldier told her.
He dragged her to the end of the alley and shoved her against the wall. She felt something break. It was her tooth, cracked in her mouth. The soldier had a gun under his jacket. If she called out, she was afraid he might shoot her mother. He might tear them both apart. She thought she saw a handsome man on the rooftop in a black jacket. She could call out to him, but what if he was a Nazi? Then she realized he was Azriel, the Angel of Death, whom a mortal is said to see only once in her life.
Before Lea could think of what to do, the soldier was reaching beneath her skirt, pulling at her undergarments. Her heart was shredding inside her chest. He covered her mouth with his, and for a moment she saw nothing and felt nothing, not even dread. The world went black. She thought perhaps this was how her life would end. She would walk into the World to Come in darkness, a sob in her throat. Then something rose up inside her.
She braced herself, arching away from him, nearly slipping from his grasp. He didn’t want a girl who fought back. He didn’t find it amusing in the least. He covered her mouth with his hand and told her she could scream if she liked, but there was no one to hear her, so she had best shut up or he would shut her up. She belonged to him now.
“Du wirst nie entkommen.” You can never get away.
That was when she bit him. She was the wolf in her grandmother’s stories, she was the girl who rose out of the darkness, the flower on a stem of thorns.
He shook her off, then clutched at her more roughly, kissing her harder, biting at her lips so she would know she was nothing more than his dinner. He felt her body as an owner would, going at her until she wept. Everything was moving too fast; a whirlwind had descended upon them and the air smelled like fire, burning up all around them. This happens when the Angel of Death is near, the one who is so brilliant he is difficult to look upon.
Lea thought it would never end, but the soldier suddenly lurched forward, falling onto her with all of his weight, so heavy she thought she might collapse. But before he could topple them both onto the ground, her mother pulled her away. Then he dropped like a stone in a stream, sprawled out on the cement. It was his blood that smelled like fire. There was so much that it covered the pavement, spilling over their shoes. The angel on the roof had gotten what he came for and had disappeared like a cloud above them.
Hanni had known exactly what she must do when she left the store and saw the soldier with Lea. She didn’t think twice. “Don’t look,” she told Lea.
Lea always did as her mother instructed, but not on this day, not now. She was another person. The one he had changed her into.
She saw her mother pull out a pair of shears she had stabbed into the soldier’s back. His shirt was turning black with blood and his eyes had changed color. In stories, it is possible to tell who is human and who is not. But here, in their city, it was impossible to tell them apart. A demon could look like a man; a man could do unthinkable things.
Lea and her mother ran hand in hand, disappearing into the crowds of women who were so intent on finding food for their families they didn’t notice the blood on the hem of Hanni’s skirt or the slick black liquid on their shoes. They left footprints at first, but the blood grew thinner and more transparent, and then disappeared. When they reached their apartment building, they ducked inside, still trying to catch their breaths. There were families sleeping in the hallways, displaced from grander neighborhoods where their homes had been stolen by Germans. At night people knocked at their door to plead for food. Hanni made Hardship Soup once a week and left bowls out in the corridor for those in need, but there was never enough.
They went up three flights of stairs, stepping over strangers, hurrying as best they could. Once inside their apartment, Hanni locked the door, and the spell of the night was broken. She had murdered someone and her daughter had been a witness. She quickly slipped off her bloodied skirt, then took up the sharp scissors to cut the cloth into tiny pieces, which she burned in the stove. Lea couldn’t help but think of the way the soldier had grabbed her, so fiercely she thought her ribs would shatter. She hoped that somewhere in the alley her tooth would grow into a rosebush and that every man who tried to pick one of the flowers would be left with a handful of thorns.
Out of her mother’s sight, Lea took the scissors, then went along the hall to the linen closet. She sat on the floor in the dark as if she were hovering between worlds, her heart still aching. If she had died she would have been with her father, but instead she was here. It had felt so good to bite the demon. She wished she had torn him in two. She heard her mother call her name, but she didn’t answer. By now Lea was certain that everything that had happened was her fault. Her long blond hair had made him notice her. She held her hair in one hand and with the bloody scissors, she began to cut. She should have been invisible, she should have never been there, she should have called out to her mother, she should have murdered him herself, she should have recognized him as a demon.
Her mother was outside the closet.
“My darling girl,” she called, but Lea didn’t answer. By now her hair was uneven, as short as a boy’s. When Hanni opened the door to see what her daughter had done, she gasped. The floor was layered with strands of hair, brilliant in the dark.
Hanni came to sit beside her daughter. “This is their doing, not ours,” she told Lea.
His eyes had been blue, then blood had filled them, then he was gone. Now he was among the demons who sat in the trees, waiting to scoop up the innocent and carry them away.
“He liked my hair.”
“That was not the reason it happened. It was because of who he was, not who you are.”
Lea didn’t answer, but she knew the truth. Who I used to be.
Hanni held her daughter’s hand, grateful that God had allowed her to enter the alley with the shears in her hand. But what would have happened if he hadn’t been so kind, and what would happen next time? Every day there were arrests, and by the following autumn men and women and children would be taken to the remote Grunewald freight station, where they would board the trains that would bring them to killing camps in the East.
Hanni collected the strands of hair littering the floor. Later she would place them on the windowsill for the birds to weave into their nests. But as it turned out, there were no birds in the trees. This was the day when they had all risen into the sky in a shining band of light, abandoning the city. There was nothing here for anyone anymore. Bobeshi could not leave her bed, let alone flee from Berlin, and Hanni intended to honor the fifth commandment. She could not leave her mother. The problem was time. There was so little of it. Each day groups of people were taken to Grosse Hamburger Strasse, where they were kept, without knowledge of their future, in a former old people’s home, and would soon be sent to their deaths on trains that were leaving to resettle Jews in the East.
All Hanni knew was that someone among them must be saved.
Then and there she decided to send her daughter away.
Excerpted from The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman (copyright © 2019 by Alice Hoffman). Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
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