A sweeping family saga and love story that offers a vivid and unique portrayal of life in war-torn 1941 Bucharest and life behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet Union occupation—perfect for fans of Lilac Girls and Sarah’s Key.
On a freezing night in January 1941, a little Jewish girl is found on the steps of an apartment building in Bucharest. With Romania recently allied with the Nazis, the Jewish population is in grave danger, undergoing increasingly violent persecution. The girl is placed in an orphanage and eventually adopted by a wealthy childless couple who name her Natalia. As she assimilates into her new life, she all but forgets the parents who were forced to leave her behind. They are even further from her mind when Romania falls under Soviet occupation.
Yet, as Natalia comes of age in a bleak and hopeless world, traces of her identity pierce the surface of her everyday life, leading gradually to a discovery that will change her destiny. She has a secret crush on Victor, an intense young man who as an impoverished student befriended her family long ago. Years later, when Natalia is in her early twenties and working at a warehouse packing fruit, she and Victor, now an important official in the Communist regime, cross paths again. This time they are fatefully drawn into a passionate affair despite the obstacles swirling around them and Victor’s dark secrets.
When Natalia is suddenly offered a one-time chance at freedom, Victor is determined to help her escape, even if it means losing her. Natalia must make an agonizing decision: remain in Bucharest with her beloved adoptive parents and the man she has come to love, or seize the chance to finally live life on her own terms, and to confront the painful enigma of her past.
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The Girl They Left Behind
THE GIRL SITS ALONE IN impenetrable darkness. Shivering, she wraps her arms around her tiny body and buries her face in the collar of her wool cardigan. Out here on the building steps, she tries to remember exactly what her mother had told her. Did she say how long she’d be gone? It was still light out when she last saw her parents rounding the corner, her mother with her shoulders slumped forward, trembling in her thin dress, her father shuffling down the frozen sidewalk just steps behind her. A chill tears through her as she places her palms on the icy concrete beneath her. The winter wind bites into her flesh, slashing mercilessly at her bare legs, and she wishes she had a blanket or mittens, or at least her bonnet, which somehow she has lost. Still, she’d rather be out here in the frigid cold than inside that dark, musty lobby. The smell of cooked cabbage coming from one of the apartments made her stomach growl with hunger, even though at home she always refused to eat it no matter how much her mother pleaded with her.
Drawing her knees to her chest, she looks up at the building’s three stories and its vast, rounded balconies looming above. Certainly, she’s never seen this building before. She has never seen this street, this vacant, dimly illuminated street on which a single lamppost casts a glint of light over the blackened snow. There isn’t a person in sight. It is as if someone has turned out the lights on this once lively city, forbidding any strolling, greeting, or laughter.
Her parents will be back any minute, she thinks, glancing up the length of the street again. She tries to recall her mother’s soft voice telling her not to be afraid, that if she is a brave girl, all will be well. Still, she knows that she shouldn’t be out at this hour. Just the other day, she overheard her parents talking about the curfew, how the Iron Guard were patrolling the city, arresting anyone still on the streets after sundown. How they’d shot someone in front of their own building, right there for all the neighbors to see. She heard them talk about other things, too, things they didn’t want her to hear, whispering in the room next to hers after she’d long gone to bed. Their words were muffled, indistinguishable, but the desperate edge in their voices made her shudder in her warm bed.
There are noises in the distance now—shouting, shrieking voices intermingled with the rhythmic thumping of boots and windows slamming shut in the night. This has been happening for the last few nights, but this time, the sounds are accompanied by a strange smell, something like burnt coal but sickly sweet, which makes her stomach turn. Waves of nausea rise inside her, and she pulls the edge of her cardigan over her face to get relief from the stench, forcing her thoughts to her home and her bed with the pink satin quilt, the familiar light creeping through the door left ajar between their two bedrooms.
Tears well up in her eyes, and she can no longer fight them. She is ashamed, because she knows she is not brave after all, even though she promised her mother that she would try her hardest. I will be good, Mama. I will be patient, she’d said, but now those words seem as if they were spoken a lifetime ago.
In the crook of her arm, her sobs spring free, knifing through the silence and echoing through courtyards and alleyways. Although she knows she should be quiet, there is no way to contain whatever it is that has come loose inside her. She cries until there is nothing left, until even her jagged sighs have melted away, becoming one with the wind. Lying down on the concrete landing, she curls herself up into a ball and finally lets herself slip into a bottomless chasm.
Suddenly, sturdy arms embrace her, lifting her in the air. She is startled awake, and looking up, she sees the face of a woman she doesn’t know—hair pulled back in a silvery bun, random strands falling about her lined, rounded cheeks. The faint scent of starch and perspiration envelops her as the woman folds her against her chest, so tightly that she cannot break free, even though she tries with all her might, flailing her limbs. Yet there is something tender in the woman’s grip, something comforting, and the girl is too cold and tired and weak, so she buries her face in the woman’s bosom and begins to weep. Opening the entrance door with her elbow, the woman carries her back into the lobby. The girl wants to ask if she knows about her parents, if they are coming to get her soon, but when she opens her mouth, only a long, sharp wail escapes from her lips.
“Shh . . .” whispers the woman in her ear. “I’ve got you. Shh . . . You are all right. You are all right.”
In the transient light of a passing car, the woman’s face shines pale and wide like a moon visible amid passing clouds, her eyes like that, too, sparkling and moist. As if sensing the girl’s gaze, they lower to hers, but an instant later, the light is gone, and they disappear from her again, sliding back into nothingness. Only the woman’s arms remain, soft and solid all the same, and that scent encircling her in waves.
“Such a sweet thing,” she thinks she can hear the woman murmur as if to herself in the returning darkness. “Such a sweet little thing.” There is a cluck of her tongue. “What a pity.”
Twenty years she’s worked as a concierge in this building. Twenty long years, during which she’s gotten to know every family on the block, and so she can practically swear that this little girl does not belong to any of them. No, she is most certainly from a different part of town. Perhaps her parents were visiting someone in the building when the girl slipped away without their realizing. But who would let a child wander off in the middle of Dacia Boulevard? Who would leave a child of three, maybe four, in the middle of gunfire and the curfew and dead bodies lining the streets? In disbelief, in disgust, she shakes her head. She isn’t the most educated woman, but she does know human decency, and she realizes this is an aberration.
Even in her sleep, the poor thing is clutching her hand so tightly that she finds it impossible to move from the stairwell between the lobby and the first floor, where she’s been cradling the girl in her lap. Just when she thinks she can try to lift her, the girl goes rigid, writhing and twisting, and all she can do is still her with her own failing body, folding over hers in a prayer. A prayer that she repeats again and again hours later, when she’s managed at last to bring the child down to her basement room and the wavering light of a winter dawn trickles in through the sliver of glass that is her window.
The girl wakes and sits up on the narrow bed. Her eyes roam unfocused about the tiny space, taking in the old dresser with its peeling lacquer, the kitchen half visible behind the threadbare curtain, the rusted soba in the corner in which a few sputtering flames leap like overgrown moths. Gathering the blanket closer around her, she scoots over to the far corner of the bed, but there is no fear on her face now, only confusion.
“Where’s my mama?” she utters after a silence. Her voice is small, hardly audible. “Is she coming to get me soon?”
The woman’s hands are cold, so cold as she looks down at them, the way they keep rubbing each other as if they have a mind of their own. In the wood-burning stove, the embers flare and pop, and it is only when they’ve turned completely to ash that she raises her eyes.
“No, my sweet girl,” is all she says simply. “No.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Girl They Left Behind 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
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. For much of the novel, Natalia cannot remember her life before Anton and Despina adopted her, saying “her past had faded to black” (pg. 73), although she eventually regains some of her memories of her birth parents’ flight from Romania when she was almost four. What is your earliest memory? Is there anything from before then that you wish you could recollect?
2. In the first window into Despina’s point of view, she reflects on the serendipitous nature of her meeting Anton. Are there other moments in the plot that seem “fated”? What role does the notion of fate play in the book?
3. The Girl They Left Behind is separated into three parts—Anton and Despina, Natalia, and Victor. Why do you think Roxanne Veletzos chose to structure the novel this way? How did each part contribute to the overarching narrative?
4. One of the prominent themes of the book is reversal of fortune. For example, Anton acquires great wealth, only to lose everything, and Victor, once a starving university student, rises to the top of a political regime. What do you think bonds these two characters so deeply despite their opposing circumstances?
5. In a critical moment when Natalia is ill and needs to get to a hospital, a Nazi soldier decides to save her life because he also has a daughter. Were you surprised by this display of humanity? Do you think he would have done the same thing if he knew Natalia was of Jewish descent? Why, or why not?
6. When Despina receives the letter from Natalia’s birth mother, she is forced to make a decision about whether to share that letter with her daughter. Do you think you would have done the same thing in her position?
7. When Natalia runs into Victor in her early twenties, she is torn between her attraction to him and his desertion of her and her family ten years prior. What finally draws her into his arms? Does she ever forgive him fully or is there still a part of him that she distrusts? What in the end allows her to let him go and move into a future without him?
8. Both Despina and Zora exemplify incredible strength in their fight for the safety of their daughter. Discuss whether they seem ultimately separated or united in the choices they make as mothers. Which one of them do you think finds the most peace at the end of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. As a group, take a look at the section beginning on page 341: The Real Girl Left Behind. Do the photographs of the real-life Anton, Despina, and Natalia match with how you envisioned them? If not, how do they differ? In her author’s note, Roxanne Veletzos mentions a couple of the changes she made to her mother’s story to fictionalize it. Why do you think she made those changes? What effect did they have on the novel?
2. In the epilogue, Natalia writes that she will help her parents leave Romania and help them join her. Consider writing a scene in which Anton and Despina come to New York. What would it be like for them to reunite with Natalia? How would they feel seeing Zora and Iosef? What sort of life would they build in America? Share your writing pieces with your book club and discuss the different ways you imagined their future.
3. One aspect that sets The Girl They Left Behind apart from many other novels set during the same era is its Romanian setting. Consider reading another historical novel set during World War II with your book group, such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer, The Diplomat’s Daughter by Karin Tanabe, or The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa. After reading, compare and contrast with The Girl They Left Behind. What similar themes were touched upon in both novels? What challenges did characters face in both? How did the setting impact its outlook on the war or its fallout? What did each novel explore that was different?