This story begins in Berlin in 1941 during the Holocaust. A bit of magical realism overlying the plot doesn’t change the the historical events that occurred, but adds a metaphorical dimension to several themes: the inevitability of evil in the world; the transformational power of love and hope; and all the blessings that can occur in spite of the first and with the help of the second, even in the worst of circumstances.
Hanni Kohn knew that evil was all around her, and closing in.
“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.”
Hanni also understood how evil worked – the same way, in fact it has always worked, even in the 21st Century:
“It made its own corrupt sense; it swore that the good were evil, and that evil had come to save mankind. It brought up ancient fears and scattered them on the street like pearls.”
Hanni’s husband Simon, a doctor, had already been murdered by the Nazis. Thus she was all the more desperate that her 12-year-old daughter Lea should live:
“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.”
Somehow, she had to help her daughter get to (relative) safety in France. She herself couldn’t leave; her own mother was bedridden and Hanni owed it to her to stay with her and care for her.
Desperate for a miracle, Hanni sought help from an old woman, Tante Ruth, who was the daughter of a rabbi known as “The Magician.” Ruth told Hanni the only possibility she could think of to get Lea out was a golem.
In Jewish folklore, a golem is a human-like figure made out of clay and brought to life by esoteric magic known only to a select few adept at Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah. Golems – unnaturally strong and unquestionably obedient to their creators – were said to have been created from time to time in olden days to help defend Jews from antisemitic attacks. It would take a golem for Lea to escape from Berlin. Ruth gave Hanni the address of a rabbi who was famous for his knowledge of spirits and magic.
Neither the rabbi nor his wife would help Hanni, but their daughter, 17-year-old Ettie, agreed to try. Ettie had eavesdropped on her father for years, and knew how to create a golem. She would not only make one for Lea, but she and her 15-year-old sister Marta would go with them to France.
Hanni, Ettie, and Marta collected mud from the banks of the Spree River, adding Hanni’s tears and Marta’s menstrual blood to the mix, and together shaped a female golem they named Ava. Ava was charged with protecting Hanni’s daughter at all costs: “You cannot abandon her or leave her on her own. She is the only one who matters to you.”
Ava understood she was created to love Lea as if she were her own, but love was a mystery to Ava, one that could not be fully understood even by mortals. Nevertheless, Ava was determined to fulfill the sole purpose with which she had been charged.
As the story goes on, and Ava, Lea, Ettie, and Marta proceed on their journey, all of them come to learn more about the mystery of love.
In Paris, Lea and Ava go to stay with the Levi family, distant cousins of Hanni, where they meet Julien, 14, and Victor, 17 – two boys whose fates will become entwined with theirs.
Ettie ends up in Vienne, France, a region outside of Lyon, where she lives a life in disguise as a gentile. She no longer has faith in any event. She felt God had forsaken her, “and in turn she had forsaken His ways and His word.” All she wished for was a way to fight back against the Germans.
The Nazi occupation becomes more entrenched and dangerous over time. The group suffer losses, but they also learn this about love: “If you are loved, you never lose the person who loved you. You carry them with you all your life.”
Lea had been given instructions by her mother what to do about Ava when Lea was finally safe, but Ava, who also knew about the instructions, wanted to change her fate. Yes, she had fulfilled the original purpose of her creation, but Ava felt her maker was wrong; she was no longer just an automaton made of clay. She believed that if you love someone, you do in fact possess a soul. And if someone loves you, you have been made flesh. You can ache and bleed and feel joy, because of that love.
As for Lea, she wanted to honor her mother’s guidance about Ava, but also came to see that “fate might not be set out before them in a straight, unwavering path, but might instead be a curving line marked by chance and choice, infinite in its possible destinations.”
Discussion: One is reminded of Isaac Asimov’s series of books about robots, which explore the idea of the creation of beings who come to feel alive and who cherish that feeling. This book might also be considered a Holocaust retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit. In that classic story, the Nursery Magic Fairy explains to the much-loved and eventual raggedy plush bunny toy that it has became “Real” because of the love of the boy who owned him. In The World That We Knew, we are asked to ponder how, after all, is one to define “humanity”? Are the murderous and evil demons in brown shirts to be considered “alive” while a being like Ava is not?
While the theme of defining humanity is explored in this story, it never takes the focus away from the horrors of the Holocaust. Hoffman takes great pains to make an accurate presentation of exactly what happened and how many lives were affected by the Nazi reign of terror. The magical elements add a metaphorical aspect to understanding it, but cannot change it.
Through the different characters, readers are also able to examine different reactions to the problem of theodicy, the question of how the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent God is consistent with the existence of evil or suffering in the world. The Holocaust gave a unique dimension to the issue, and put each character’s response in sharp relief.
Evaluation: This profoundly affecting book has redemptive aspects to it, but ultimately is informed by the crushing reality of what actually happened during the Holocaust. It raises so many philosophical issues that it would make an excellent choice for book clubs.
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2019