Inspired by an astonishing true story from World War II, a young woman with a talent for forgery helps hundreds of Jewish children flee the Nazis in this “sweeping and magnificent” (Fiona Davis, bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue) historical novel from the #1 international bestselling author of The Winemaker’s Wife.
Eva Traube Abrams, a semi-retired librarian in Florida, is shelving books when her eyes lock on a photograph in the New York Times. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in more than sixty years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.
The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer, but does she have the strength to revisit old memories?
As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris and find refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, where she began forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.
An engaging and evocative novel reminiscent of The Lost Girls of Paris and The Alice Network, The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of bravery and love in the face of evil.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One Chapter One
It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m midway through my shift at the Winter Park Public Library when I see it.
The book I last laid eyes on more than six decades ago.
The book I believed had vanished forever.
The book that meant everything to me.
It’s staring out at me from a photograph in the New York Times, which someone has left open on the returns desk. The world goes silent as I reach for the newspaper, my hand trembling nearly as much as it did the last time I held the book. “It can’t be,” I whisper.
I gaze at the picture. A man in his seventies looks back at me, his snowy hair sparse and wispy, his eyes froglike behind bulbous glasses.
“Sixty Years After End of World War II, German Librarian Seeks to Reunite Looted Books with Rightful Owners,” declares the headline, and I want to cry out to the man in the image that I am the rightful owner of the book he’s holding, the faded leather-bound volume with the peeling bottom right corner and the gilded spine bearing the title Epitres et Evangiles. It belongs to me—and to Rémy, a man who died long ago, a man I vowed after the war to think of no more.
But he’s been in my thoughts this week anyhow, despite my best efforts. Tomorrow, the eighth of May, the world will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. It’s impossible, with all the young newscasters speaking solemnly of the war as if they could conceivably understand it, not to think of Rémy, not to think of the time we spent together then, not to think of the people we saved and the way it all ended. Though my son tells me I’m blessed to have such a sharp mind in my old age, like many blessings this one is mixed.
Most days, I just long to forget.
I blink away the uninvited thoughts of Rémy and return my attention to the article. The man in the photo is Otto Kühn, a librarian from the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek in Berlin, who has made it his life’s mission to return books looted by the Nazis. There are apparently more than a million such books in his library’s collection alone, but the one he’s holding in the photo—my book—is the one he says keeps him up at night.
“This religious text,” Kühn has told the reporter, “is my favorite among the many mysteries that occupy our shelves. Published in Paris in 1732, it’s a very rare book, but that’s not what makes it extraordinary. It is unique because within it, we find an intriguing puzzle: some sort of code. To whom did it belong? What does the code mean? How did the Germans come to possess it during the war? These are the questions that haunt me.”
I feel tears in my eyes, tears that have no place there. I wipe them away, angry at myself for still being so emotional after all these years. “How nice it must be,” I say softly to Kühn’s picture, “to be haunted by questions rather than ghosts.”
“Um, Mrs. Abrams? Are you talking to that newspaper?”
I’m jolted out of the fog of my memory by the voice of Jenny Fish, the library’s assistant manager. She’s the type who complains about everything—and who seems to enjoy suggesting at every opportunity that since I’m eighty-six, I might want to think about retiring soon. She is always eyeing me suspiciously, as if she simply cannot believe that at my age, I’d still want to work here.
She doesn’t understand what it means to love books so passionately that you would die without them, that you would simply stop breathing, stop existing. It is quite beyond me, in fact, why she became a librarian in the first place.
“Yes, Jenny, indeed I am,” I reply, without looking up.
“Yes, well, you probably shouldn’t be doing that in front of library guests.” She says it without a trace of irony. “They might think you’re senile.” She does not have a sense of humor.
“Thank you, Jenny. Your advice is always so very helpful.”
She nods solemnly. It is also apparently beyond her comprehension that someone who looks like me—small, white-haired, grandmotherly—is capable of sarcasm.
Today, though, I have no time for her. All I can think about is the book. The book that held so many secrets. The book that was taken from me before I could learn whether it contained the one answer I so desperately needed.
And now, a mere plane flight away, there’s a man who holds the key to unlocking everything.
“Do I dare?” I murmur to the photo of Otto Kühn. I respond to my own question before doubt can creep in. “I must. I owe it to the children.”
“Mrs. Abrams?” It’s Jenny again, addressing me by my surname, though I’ve told her a thousand times to call me Eva, just as she addresses the younger librarians by their given names. But alas, I am nothing to her but an old lady. One’s reward for marching through the decades is a gradual process of erasure.
“Yes, Jenny?” I finally look up at her.
“Do you need to go home?” I suspect she says it with the expectation that I’ll decline. She’s smirking a bit, certain that she has asserted her superiority. “Perhaps gather yourself?”
So it gives me great pleasure to look her right in the eye, smile, and say, “Yes, Jenny, thank you ever so much. I think I’ll do just that.”
I grab the newspaper and go.
As soon as I arrive at my house—a cozy bungalow just a five-minute walk from the library—I log on to my computer.
Yes, I have a computer. And yes, I know how to use it. My son, Ben, has a bad habit of pronouncing computer terms slowly in my presence—in-ter-net and e-mail-ing—as if the whole concept of technology might be too much for me. I suppose I can’t blame him, not entirely. By the time Ben was born, the war was eight years past, and I’d left France—and the person I used to be—far behind. Ben knew me only as a librarian and housewife who sometimes stumbled over her English.
Somewhere along the way, he got the mistaken idea that I am a simple person. What would he say if he knew the truth?
It’s my fault for never telling him, for failing to correct the error. But when you grow comfortable hiding within a protective shell, it’s harder than one might expect to stand up and say, “Actually, folks, this is who I am.”
Perhaps I also feared that Ben’s father, my husband, Louis, would leave me if he realized I was something other than the person I wanted him to see. He left me anyhow—pancreatic cancer a decade ago—and though I’ve missed his companionship, I’ve also had the strange realization that I probably could have done without him much sooner.
I go to the website for Delta—habit, I suppose, since Louis traveled often for business and was part of the airline’s frequent-flier program. The prices are exorbitant, but I have plenty stashed away in savings. It’s just before noon, and there’s a flight that leaves three hours from now, and another leaving at 9:35 tonight, connecting in Amsterdam tomorrow, and landing in Berlin at 3:40 p.m. I click immediately and book the latter. There is something poetic about knowing I will arrive in Berlin sixty years to the day after the Germans signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies in that very city.
A shiver runs through me, and I don’t know whether it’s fear or excitement.
I must pack, but before that, I’ll need to call Ben. He won’t understand, but perhaps it’s finally time for him to learn that his mother isn’t the person he always believed her to be.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Book of Lost Names includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Eva Traube Abrams, a Florida librarian, is at the returns desk one morning when her eyes lock onto a photograph in a nearby newspaper. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.
The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer—but will she have the strength to revisit old memories and help reunite those lost during the war?
As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. On page 16, Mamusia tells Eva, “If we shrink from them, if we lose our goodness, we let them erase us. We cannot do that, Eva. We cannot.” Compare her stance here with how she behaves in Aurignon, after Tatuś is taken by the Germans. How does her outlook change? Rereading this and knowing that Mamusia felt this way before tragedy struck, how do your opinions of her and her reaction to Eva’s work as a forger change? Do you believe Joseph when he tells Eva that Mamusia said she was proud of the work Eva did to help keep children from being erased?
2. The beginning of Eva’s nightmare falls on the night her father is taken away and she is forced to watch it happen in silence. Do you think she did the right thing by keeping quiet, or should she have done more to try to save him? What do you think you would have done in this situation? What did Eva’s decision reveal about her character and what she might accomplish later in the novel?
3. Eva has to risk her and her mother’s safety on numerous occasions by trusting others. Discuss the many characters Eva and Mamusia trusted to keep their secrets. Was any of this trust misplaced? Were there any red flags about those they should not have trusted?
What does the selflessness present in so many in Aurignon say about the promise of the human capacity for goodness in times of crisis?
4. On page 117, Eva watches officers walking around unbothered in Drancy and thinks to herself, “Could they all be that evil? Or had they discovered a switch within themselves that allowed them to turn off their civility? Did they go home to their wives at night and simply flip the switches back on, become human once more?” What do you think of her questions? In wartime, do you think those who don’t fight for what is right are evil? Do you think they can become immune to atrocities? Discuss.
5. Eva and her mother react very differently to the news that Tatuś had been sent to Auschwitz. What do their reactions reveal about them as characters? Do you think there is a right way or a wrong way to react to such news? Why? Which reaction do you think would be most beneficial in helping someone get through a war?
6. On page 165, Eva says, “I’ve always thought that it’s those children—the ones who realize that books are magic—who will have the brightest lives.” How did Eva’s love of books help her throughout different points in the story? Discuss with your group your favorite books as children. When did you first realize the power of books? What book made you fall in love with reading? Do you think your life would be different if you hadn’t found the joy of reading?
7. On page 166, Eva thinks to herself, “Parents make all sorts of errors, because our ability to raise our children is always colored by the lives we’ve lived before they came along.” How do you think Eva’s past affected the way she raised her son? How do you think children of Jewish parents who survived World War II are affected by their parents’ pasts? Do you think it’s possible for their parents’ trauma and/or resilience to be passed down to them?
8. Mamusia feels as if Eva is abandoning her. She also tells Eva that she is being brainwashed and has forgotten who she is as she erases Jewish children’s names and attends masses. Do you think Mamusia is justified in feeling betrayed by Eva? Did you feel sympathetic toward Mamusia as she was left behind in Madame Barbier’s boardinghouse, or did you grow irritated by her inability to understand Eva’s drive to help others? Who or what do you believe is responsible for the growing hostility in their relationship?
9. On page 204, Père Clément says, “The path of life is darkest when we choose to walk it alone.” Do you agree that this statement is true in all situations? Discuss the moments in the novel when Eva decides to go it alone and compare them to the moments when she trusts others with her secrets, her wants, and her fears. Do you think the moments she decided to work alone would have been easier if she had a partner, or do you think that would have only increased her stress? What about the moments she opened up to others—would she have been better off keeping to herself?
10. Were you surprised to find out that Joseph was the one who betrayed the forgery network? Were there any red flags? Why do you think the author decided Joseph would be the traitor? What would you have done in Joseph’s position?
11. Was moving on and trying to forget Rémy the right decision for Eva, or do you believe that she should have waited even longer to make sure that Rémy hadn’t survived? Discuss with your group the pros and cons of each choice. Did Tatuś give Eva sound advice in telling her to start living her own life? Would you have moved to the United States with Louis even if you knew you would never love him like you did Rémy?
12. Eva believed that Rémy went to his grave not knowing how she felt about him because she told him she couldn’t marry him. Do you think Rémy ever thought that Eva had given up on him when he waited for her on the library steps and she never showed? If they had ended up finding each other before they both moved on to live separate lives, do you think they would have made it as a couple? Why or why not?
13. On page 370, Eva says, “We aren’t defined by the names we carry or the religion we practice, or the nation whose flag flies over our heads. I know that now. We’re defined by who we are in our hearts, who we choose to be on this earth.” How would you define the main characters in the book? Do their religions or countries play into who they are as people? Do you think they can truly be separated from their backgrounds and judged only by what is in their hearts and what they choose to do?
14. Why do you think Eva kept her past from her son? Do you think she was embarrassed or still felt guilty about anything? Do you think it was a coping mechanism and a way for her to move on? Discuss with your group.
15. In her author’s note, on page 384, Kristin Harmel says, “You don’t need money or weapons or a big platform to change the world. Sometimes, something as simple as a pen and a bit of imagination can alter the course of history.” Discuss this as a group and share with your book club those people—either famous or not—who you believe best exemplify this sentiment.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Buy special paper and art pens, look up photos of French papers from World War II, and try your hand at forgery. See if anyone in your book club would have enough talent to fool the French and German soldiers.
2. Have each member of your book club come to your meeting with books of their own that they are willing to write in to send each other messages—or ask each other questions—employing the Fibonacci sequence and code that Eva and Rémy used to record the birth names and fake names of the children for whom they made papers.
3. In the author’s note, the author makes mention of the many books she read as research for The Book of Lost Names. As a group, choose one of her inspirations as your next book club pick, such as Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky, A Good Place to Hide by Peter Grose, or The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell. Then compare the characters in your book choice with the characters in The Book of Lost Names.