Holocaust story is about the power of love

24 February 2020 - 12:43 By Margaret von Klemperer
'The World That We Knew' by Alice Hoffman.
'The World That We Knew' by Alice Hoffman.
Image: Supplied

Published in The Witness (24/02/2020)

Some years ago, World War 1 was the hot topic for serious novelists. These things move in cycles, and now it seems to be the Holocaust that is in vogue. It’s a tricky subject for fiction, and, to my mind, some of the novels that have been lauded and admired are distastefully manipulative and simply unbelievable. So I was interested to see what such a skilled and perceptive writer as Alice Hoffman would make of it. When I read the blurb and saw references to the fantastical and magical, I was dubious. How could this be made to work with such a brutal, real and tragic subject?

Set in the years 1941 to 1945, the novel opens in Berlin, Germany, with a Jewish mother desperate to save the life of her young daughter. She visits an Orthodox rabbi, steeped in the arcane world of Jewish mysticism, in the hope he can create a golem, a mysterious creature made from clay and without a soul, but dedicated to the protection of one human. It is the rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, who creates Ava, the golem who is tasked with taking care of Lea and leading her to Paris. The golem has a limited life: ultimately it must be destroyed by the person it protects, or it will become human and begin to think for itself with potentially disastrous consequences.

In the skilled hands of Hoffman, this scenario is weirdly believable, and, by the end, deeply moving as Lea, Ava, Ettie and her little sister flee to France. Paris is no safe haven as Jews are being rounded up and sent east to the gas chambers, so they, along with various other characters including two young Jewish men, Victor and Julien, flee south to Vichy France – Victor and Ettie, who is fixated on revenge, to join the Resistance and Lea, Ava and Julien in the hope of an escape to Switzerland. Meanwhile, around them, the war rages in all its brutality, treachery and hatred.

All the peripheral characters are fleshed out in a way that makes them very real and gives weight to a story that is both a thrilling tale of adventure and escape and a poignant meditation on the power of love – love of a mother for a child; love between siblings; and love between men and women. It is a powerful and memorable work that pays due respect to its subject matter.