"Some of the flowers he had taken were falling apart in his grasp, petals strewn in the walkway. He was careless and he didn't mind leaving a path of ruined flowers. Still, the petals seemed to glow" (211).
The World That We Knew is a 365 page novel written by Alice Hoffman and published by Simon and Schuster in 2019.
Who should read this?
Any fans of Alice Hoffman in general will enjoy the way in which she spins this story. This is also going to be a delight for readers who enjoy Holocaust and WWII era stories. People who consider the lines of fate, humanity, and religion will find this story extremely intriguing!
Other pieces by Hoffman:
Hanni is a mother who would do anything to protect her daughter Lea, even during the most difficult of times. She faces perilous situations daily while living through the early stages of the Holocaust in Berlin. It is when she realizes that life there is too dangerous and will end in only one way that she decides Lea must get out. She is told that with the help of a golem, Lea can be protected and given motherly attention on a journey to safety while Hanni must stay and help her bedridden mom. She seeks out the help of the Rabbi, but his wife declines to help. However, their knowledgeable daughter Ettie offers help in exchange for the safe travel of herself and her sister. Together they create the golem from clay, sealing the deal. Once this is done the golem named Ava takes Lea to Paris where her story really begins. She will live with distant cousins she'd never met, meeting characters we grow to know: Julien, Victor, and Marianne. Many stories intertwine to create the novel that we read, demonstrating the individual stories of resistance, loss, and love.
I was first drawn to this book because I loved Alice Hoffman's book The Rules of Magic and have since kept my eye out for any new books of hers that I might enjoy. Upon noticing that this book would be released last year, I decided that it might be right up my alley. If you have skimmed through the titles of other books that I have read, you might notice that I read WWII fiction and Holocaust stories of real survivors like Elie Wiesel. I thought that this might be a nice addition to the stories that I have grown to love throughout the years. As it turns out, this story is one that will be added my list of highly regarded WWII/ Holocaust fiction. The reason for this is threefold.
First, I love that the stories offered throughout the novel reflect what I like to see in a Holocaust narrative, nonfiction or fiction. I like to see that narrative revolves around stories of individual and their real lives before the war, during the war, and after the war if they were lucky to survive. I like that it shows loss, tribulations, and hardships not because those were fun events to read or discuss, but because they were raw and real. Real life imitates art which imitates life. People faced pain and destruction in ways I could not truly imagine and we see that imitated in writing, some true stories, some not. Those which are not true are based around the facts to offer realistic stories. While they might not be true stories, their points imitate the real ones. The immense tragedies of the genocide during WWII is felt even if in a small amount when reading Hoffman's book. The families were well created and realistically torn apart. Not everyone could survive the Holocaust in real life, and neither could the characters in this book. The way each character faces his or her own unique story, following personal ambitions and realistic emotions was heartbreaking. It was also beautiful to see the way those characters valued life, love, family, and friendship. Their stories intertwined like an intricately woven web comprised of moments filled with horror, tragedy, luck, and love, connected at their core. There was no limit to what they would do to achieve their goals or stand up for what they deemed important in life. They offered readers hope, light, and moments of empathy, something important to take away from Holocaust stories.
Second, this book is fun to read, but what is more important is that it pushes readers to feel. I felt happy when things were finally going the right way, fear when the characters faced evil forces, sadness when the they suffered grief, but most of all I felt taken aback. If a story offering fictitious characters' stories could pull on the heartstrings so well, what could stories of real Holocaust victims and survivors do? If people who were interested in this story only dug more deeply to get to know the true Holocaust victims and their stories, maybe the world would be more progressive in developing deeper levels of empathy and stronger bonds among those who were targeted and those who were not, uniting to fight hate and discrimination at a new height in our history. This need to eliminate discrimination is a significant and essential goal that we must seek to accomplish, not only for Jews around the world, but also people of various backgrounds, races, and religions. This book accomplished conveying one theme clearly: no discrimination of any kind should force people to fear, flee, or die. Learn this from the past to avoid this in the future. Discrimination should not be tolerated on any level today, tomorrow, ever.
Lastly, the many themes that were offered in this story were strongly portrayed. One message is that genocide is unacceptable and did not accomplish what the Nazis had unjustly set out to do. If one Jew survives, then they lose. Over 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, not to mention the other groups of people persecuted, because they were deemed less than by Hitler. However, Hoffman does a phenomenal job undermining this philosophy by portraying the various Jewish characters in many different ways: some blonde, brunette, ginger; some tall, short, artistic, strong, intelligent, bold, etc. Hoffman shows that Jews, like any other group of people, come in every shape, size, and personality. Jews are not a race, but they do share culture and/or religion. They may even identify more strongly with their nationality than ethnicity or religion, so who is to say that a last name, hair color, or religion is enough to deem a person good or bad when the quality of character varies from each person to person around the world? Hoffman points out these fallacies throughout the novel, lacing it with small truths that build upon each other to reveal a bigger message. Don't judge a book by its cover. Accept others and turn away from discrimination. There is no way to simply group people as the Nazis taught in their ideology because there is nothing that makes all Jews the same, just like there is no way that makes any group of people all the same. All individual people are people--period. Learning about the characters as individuals on their own journies made them feel like people the reader might know--maybe a family member, friend, or acquaintance. Through this, Hoffman stresses other themes of love and acceptance once more. Don't turn a blind eye and be a bystander, but rather stand up for the stranger or friend who faces discrimination. Stand with those who can't battle alone. Do what is right and just. Be on the right side of history and make a positive impact. Do what you can in your own story so that others may continue to speak in their own. The symbolism that Hoffman ties with these themes is also implemented extremely well. She uses metaphors, symbols, and imagery among other figurative language devices to draw connections to the reader and back to these themes. These symbols and devices evoke intense emotion and feelings that it is necessary to stop atrocious actions from occurring again.
In a world where its hard to avoid seeing hate pop up in the news, in people's newsfeed, in actions and words, this book and its purpose is essential for everyone to read.