On the brink of World War II, with the Nazis tightening their grip on Berlin, a mother’s act of courage and love offers her daughter a chance of survival.
“[A] hymn to the power of resistance, perseverance, and enduring love in dark times...gravely beautiful...Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
At the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. Her desperation leads her to Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi whose years spent eavesdropping on her father enables her to create a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Hanni’s daughter, Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.
What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never-ending.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 16, 1952
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Adelphi University, 1973; M.A., Stanford University, 1974
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: East of the Sun
BERLIN, SPRING 1941
IF YOU DO NOT BELIEVE in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand. But if you do believe, you may see it everywhere, in every cellar, in every tree, along streets you know and streets you’ve never been on before. In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. Her husband, Simon, was murdered on a winter afternoon during a riot outside the Jewish Hospital on Iranische Strasse, which was miraculously still functioning despite the laws against the Jews. He had spent the afternoon saving two patients’ lives by correcting the flow of blood to their hearts, then at a little past four, as a light snow was falling, he was killed by a gang of thugs. They stole the wedding ring from his finger and the boots from his feet. His wife was not allowed to go to the cemetery and bury him, instead his remains were used for animal feed. Hanni tore at her clothes, as tradition dictated; she covered the mirrors in their apartment and sat in mourning with her mother and daughter for seven days. During his time as a doctor Simon Kohn had saved 720 souls. Perhaps on the day that he left Olam HaZeh, the world that we walk through each living day, those who had been saved were waiting for him in Olam HaBa, the World to Come. Perhaps his treatment there, under the eyes of God, was that which he truly deserved. As for Hanni, there was not enough room in the world for the grief that she felt.
In Berlin evil came to them slowly and then all at once. The rules changed by the hour, the punishments grew worse, and the angel in the black coat wrote down so many names in his Book of Death there was no room for the newly departed. Each morning people needed to check the ever-changing list of procedures to see what they were allowed to do. Jews were not allowed to have pets or own radios or telephones. Representatives from the Jewish community center had recently gone through the neighborhood asking people to fill out forms with their names and addresses, along with a list of all of their belongings, including their underwear, their pots and pans, their silverware, the paintings on the walls, the nightgowns in their bureau drawers, their pillows, the rings on their fingers. The government said they must do so in order for proper records of valuables to be made during a time of reorganization under the Nazi regime, but this was not the reason. It was easy to lie to people who still believed in the truth. Only days afterward, each person who had filled out this list was deported to a death camp.
As the months passed, the world became smaller, no larger than one’s own home. If you were lucky, a couch, a chair, a room became the world. Now, as spring approached, Jewish women were no longer allowed on the street except for the hour between four and five in the afternoon. They filed out of their houses all at once, stars sewn to their coats, searching for food in a world where there was no food, with no money to buy anything, and yet they lingered in the blue air, startled by the new leaves on the trees, stunned to discover that in this dark world spring had come again.
On this day, Hanni was among them. But she was not looking to buy anything. That was not where fate had led her. In a matter of months, Hanni had become a thief. She was fairly certain that her crimes wouldn’t stop there, and if people wished to judge her, let them. She had a mother who was unable to leave her bed due to paralysis and a twelve-year-old daughter named Lea, who was too smart for her age, as many children now were. She looked out the window and saw there were demons in the trees. The stories Hanni’s mother had told her as a child had now been told to Lea. They were tales to tell when children needed to know not all stories ended with happiness. Girls were buried in the earth by evil men and their teeth rose up through the mud and became white roses on branches of thorns. Children were lost and could never find their way home and their souls wandered through the forest, crying for their mothers.
Grandmother was called Bobeshi. She had been born in Russia and in her stories wolves ruled the snowy forests, they knew how to escape from the men on horseback who carried rifles and shot at anything that moved, even the angels. Lea was a shy, intelligent girl, always at the top of her class when school had been in session and Jews were allowed to attend. She sat close to Bobeshi while the old woman told how as a girl she had walked alone to a great, rushing river to get water each morning. Once a black wolf had approached her, coming so close she could feel his breath. They had stared at each other, and in that moment she’d felt that she knew him and that he knew her in return. In stories a wolf might have torn her to shreds, but this one ran back through the trees, a beautiful black shadow with a beating heart. A wolf will seldom attack, Bobeshi always said, only when it is wounded or starving. Only when it must survive.
Hanni Kohn was not the sort of person to give in to demons, although she knew they now roamed the streets. Everywhere there were ruach ra’ah, evil spirits, and malache habbala, angels of destruction. 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. They could not let it end this way. Hanni had no choice but to survive until their daughter was safe. She found ruined gardens and dug in the earth for young onions and shallots, from which she fashioned a family recipe called Hardship Soup, made from cabbage and water, a food that sustained them while others were starving, She went out after curfew to cut branches from bushes in the park so they might have wood to burn in their stove even though the smoke was bitter. Dressed all in black so that she would be nearly invisible, she ventured into the muck of the river Spree, where she caught fish with her bare hands, even though doing so was a serious offense punishable by lashings and prison and deportation. The fish sighed in her hands, and she apologized for taking their lives, but she had no choice, and she fried them for dinner. She was a wolf, from a family of wolves, and they were starving.
Her plan was to steal from the tailor’s shop where she had once worked. In the last years of her husband’s life, Jewish doctors had been paid nothing, and she had become a seamstress to support the family. It was a talent that came to her naturally. She had always sewn clothes for her mother and daughter, all made with tiny miraculous stitches that were barely visible to the naked eye. But now the Jewish shops had all been destroyed or given over to Aryan owners. The only work for Jews was forced labor in factories or camps; one had to hide from the roundups when the soldiers came in search of able-bodied people, for this kind of work was meant to grind workers into dust. In a time such as this it wasn’t difficult to become a thief, all you needed was hunger and nerve. Hanni had decided to bring her daughter along. Lea was tall and looked older than her age; she would be a good student when it came to thievery. She understood her grandmother’s stories. 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. This is why Lea must learn how to survive. She was to remain in the alleyway while Hanni went to search for anything left behind by looters. If anyone came near she was to call out so that her mother could flee the shop and avoid arrest. She held her mother’s hand, and then she let go. Lea was only a girl, but that didn’t matter anymore. She knew that. Be a wolf, her grandmother had told her.
She was waiting for her mother, standing on broken glass, hidden in the shadows as Hanni rummaged through the shop. Hanni knew where tins of tea and beans were stored for the employees’ lunch, and where the best satin ribbon was kept, and, if they hadn’t yet been stolen, where the shop owner hid a few silver teaspoons inherited from a great-aunt.
Lea heard footsteps. The alley seemed darker and she had the urge to flee even though she’d been told to stay where she was. Should she call for her mother? Should she whistle or shout? She had a bleak shivery feeling, as if she had fallen through time to find herself in Bobeshi’s village. Before she could decide whether or not to run, he was looming there, a man in his twenties, a soldier in the German army. His eyes flicked over her and she shrank from his gaze. In his presence Lea immediately lost the power of speech. He was a demon and he took her voice from her and held it in his hand. He grinned, as though he’d picked up the scent of something delicious, something he wasn’t about to let get away. No one wants to be the rabbit, standing motionless in an alley, ready to be devoured.
“Beweg dich nicht,” he told her. Don’t move.
She was only a girl, but the soldier saw her not just for who she was, but for who she would be. For him, that was more than enough. He ran a hand over her long blond hair. Right then and there, she belonged to him. He didn’t have to tell anyone else, or share her, or even think what he would do with her after. This was what it was like, she thought. This was the trap.
“Schön,” he told her as he petted her. Beautiful.
One touch and he changed her. This was the way dark enchantments worked, without logic, without cause. You are one thing and then the world pitches and you are something else entirely. A bitter fear was rising inside of Lea. Without knowing anything about what men and women did, she knew what came next. She’d felt it when he touched her. Ownership and desire.
When the soldier signaled for her to follow him down the alley, she knew she should not go. She was shivering, and her throat was burning, as if she had swallowed fire. It’s not easy for a girl to face a demon, but she forced herself to speak.
“My mother said to wait.”
The soldier grabbed Lea and shook her by the shoulders. He shook her so hard her teeth hurt and her heart ached. She thought about her father opening people’s hearts and putting them back together again.
“I don’t give a damn what your mother said,” the soldier told her.
He dragged her to the end of the alley and shoved her against the wall. She felt something break. It was her tooth, cracked in her mouth. The soldier had a gun under his jacket. If she called out, she was afraid he might shoot her mother. He might tear them both apart. She thought she saw a handsome man on the rooftop in a black jacket. She could call out to him, but what if he was a Nazi? Then she realized he was Azriel, the Angel of Death, whom a mortal is said to see only once in her life.
Before Lea could think of what to do, the soldier was reaching beneath her skirt, pulling at her undergarments. Her heart was shredding inside her chest. He covered her mouth with his, and for a moment she saw nothing and felt nothing, not even dread. The world went black. She thought perhaps this was how her life would end. She would walk into the World to Come in darkness, a sob in her throat. Then something rose up inside her. She braced herself, arching away from him, nearly slipping from his grasp. He didn’t want a girl who fought back. He didn’t find it amusing in the least. He covered her mouth with his hand and told her she could scream if she liked, but there was no one to hear her, so she had best shut up or he would shut her up. She belonged to him now.
“Du wirst nie entkommen.” You can never get away.
That was when she bit him. She was the wolf in her grandmother’s stories, she was the girl who rose out of the darkness, the flower on a stem of thorns.
He shook her off, then clutched at her more roughly, kissing her harder, biting at her lips so she would know she was nothing more than his dinner. He felt her body as an owner would, going at her until she wept. Everything was moving too fast; a whirlwind had descended upon them and the air smelled like fire, burning up all around them. This happens when the Angel of Death is near, the one who is so brilliant he is difficult to look upon.
Lea thought it would never end, but the soldier suddenly lurched forward, falling onto her with all of his weight, so heavy she thought she might collapse. But before he could topple them both onto the ground, her mother pulled her away. Then he dropped like a stone in a stream, sprawled out on the cement. It was his blood that smelled like fire. There was so much that it covered the pavement, spilling over their shoes. The angel on the roof had gotten what he came for and had disappeared like a cloud above them.
Hanni had known exactly what she must do when she left the store and saw the soldier with Lea. She didn’t think twice. “Don’t look,” she told Lea.
Lea always did as her mother instructed, but not on this day, not now. She was another person. The one he had changed her into.
She saw her mother pull out a pair of shears she had stabbed into the soldier’s back. His shirt was turning black with blood and his eyes had changed color. In stories, it is possible to tell who is human and who is not. But here, in their city, it was impossible to tell them apart. A demon could look like a man; a man could do unthinkable things.
Lea and her mother ran hand in hand, disappearing into the crowds of women who were so intent on finding food for their families they didn’t notice the blood on the hem of Hanni’s skirt or the slick black liquid on their shoes. They left footprints at first, but the blood grew thinner and more transparent, and then disappeared. When they reached their apartment building, they ducked inside, still trying to catch their breaths. There were families sleeping in the hallways, displaced from grander neighborhoods where their homes had been stolen by Germans. At night people knocked at their door to plead for food. Hanni made Hardship Soup once a week and left bowls out in the corridor for those in need, but there was never enough.
They went up three flights of stairs, stepping over strangers, hurrying as best they could. Once inside their apartment, Hanni locked the door, and the spell of the night was broken. She had murdered someone and her daughter had been a witness. She quickly slipped off her bloodied skirt, then took up the sharp scissors to cut the cloth into tiny pieces, which she burned in the stove. Lea couldn’t help but think of the way the soldier had grabbed her, so fiercely she thought her ribs would shatter. She hoped that somewhere in the alley her tooth would grow into a rosebush and that every man who tried to pick one of the flowers would be left with a handful of thorns.
Out of her mother’s sight, Lea took the scissors, then went along the hall to the linen closet. She sat on the floor in the dark as if she were hovering between worlds, her heart still aching. If she had died she would have been with her father, but instead she was here. It had felt so good to bite the demon. She wished she had torn him in two. She heard her mother call her name, but she didn’t answer. By now Lea was certain that everything that had happened was her fault. Her long blond hair had made him notice her. She held her hair in one hand and with the bloody scissors, she began to cut. She should have been invisible, she should have never been there, she should have called out to her mother, she should have murdered him herself, she should have recognized him as a demon.
Her mother was outside the closet.
“My darling girl,” she called, but Lea didn’t answer. By now her hair was uneven, as short as a boy’s. When Hanni opened the door to see what her daughter had done, she gasped. The floor was layered with strands of hair, brilliant in the dark.
Hanni came to sit beside her daughter.
“This is their doing, not ours,” she told Lea.
His eyes had been blue, then blood had filled them, then he was gone. Now he was among the demons who sat in the trees, waiting to scoop up the innocent and carry them away.
“He liked my hair.”
“That was not the reason it happened. It was because of who he was, not who you are.”
Lea didn’t answer, but she knew the truth. Who I used to be.
Hanni held her daughter’s hand, grateful that God had allowed her to enter the alley with the shears in her hand. But what would have happened if he hadn’t been so kind, and what would happen next time? Every day there were arrests, and by the following autumn men and women and children would be taken to the remote Grunewald freight station, where they would board the trains that would bring them to killing camps in the East.
Hanni collected the strands of hair littering the floor. Later she would place them on the windowsill for the birds to weave into their nests. But as it turned out, there were no birds in the trees. This was the day when they had all risen into the sky in a shining band of light, abandoning the city. There was nothing here for anyone anymore. Bobeshi could not leave her bed, let alone flee from Berlin, and Hanni intended to honor the fifth commandment. She could not leave her mother. The problem was time. There was so little of it. Each day groups of people were taken to Grosse Hamburger Strasse, where they were kept, without knowledge of their future, in a former old people’s home, and would soon be sent to their deaths on trains that were leaving to resettle Jews in the East.
All Hanni knew was that someone among them must be saved.
Then and there she decided to send her daughter away.
Reading Group Guide
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman
This reading group guide for The World That We Knew includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alice Hoffman. 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.
In this spellbinding novel, opening in 1941 Berlin, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter, Lea, away to save her from a reign of sorrow and terror. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.
Lea and Ava travel to Paris, where Lea meets her soul mate; to a convent in western France; and then to a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. All the while, Ettie is waiting to fulfill her own destiny, even if it means walking alongside the Angel of Death.
The World That We Knew is a story of love and forgiveness and an exploration of what it means to be human.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. This novel is both historical fiction and magical realism. How does Alice Hoffman achieve her unique writing style? What details does she use from each genre? What do each add to the emotional content of the story?
2. After reading the novel, re-examine the title. Consider who “we” refers to in relation to the story and to your own life.
3. How do you feel about Ava’s relationship with the heron? Has an animal ever affected your spiritual life? Are emotions bound to human experience?
4. In one of the darkest periods of human history, why do the characters still yearn to live even as the world is falling apart? What makes life precious? Is it love, family, memory, hope?
5. In fairy tales, beasts are often humane, and humans are often cruel. In The World That We Knew the same is true. Discuss this theme in the novel and in your favorite fairy tales.
6. Julien and Victor Lévi are brothers with very different paths. How does each handle their wartime experience? What do they share despite their differences, and what aspects of their past influences them most?
7. Marianne initially leaves her father’s farm “to find something that belonged to her and her alone” (99), which leads her to Paris. Despite ending up where she began, do you think she has achieved this goal? Why or why not? Did her love story surprise you? What do you think the future holds for her?
8. We learn halfway through the book that Hanni instructed her daughter to destroy Ava once Lea is brought to safety. Why do you think Lea defies her mother? Do you think she made the right decision? What may have changed her mind?
9. The book begins with Hanni making a great sacrifice to save her daughter and ends with Ava doing the same. What do these women share? Is it possible to love someone else’s children as if they were your own?
10. Ava is a golem, a mysterious creature of Jewish legend, controlled by her maker and created to do another’s bidding, but something changes. She longs for free will. Do you think she finds it?
11. Ettie yearns to be a scholar and a rabbi, but because she’s female these goals are unavailable to her. How does she create her own fate, and what leads her to rebel against the constraints of gender and history? Does war create opportunities for women to act outside of conventional roles?
12. Lea’s mother’s voice is heard throughout the novel in the italicized sections. The loss of a mother and the loss of a child is central to the story. How are the long-lasting effects of loss woven through the novel?
13. Can Ava posses a soul due to her ability to love? How does love change a world of hate, and how does it affect the characters in the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. To explore Jewish mysticism read Isaac Baschevis Singer’s The Golem, a more traditional telling of the story with male protagonists, then write your own golem story.
2. Using the map at the front of the book, make copies and trace the routes each of the main characters take throughout the story. Use different colors for each character, and make note of where their paths converge and diverge.
3. Try making your own recipe for Hardship Soup using favorite family ingredients. Share at your next book group discussion. You can invent Ava’s recipe for bread, again using your preferred ingredients.
4. Gather photographs to create your own story of your family’s history and share family legends and lore.
A Conversation with Alice Hoffman
The World That We Knew is being called another Alice Hoffman masterpiece. What was the evolution of this novel?
Years ago I met a woman in Florida who asked me if I would write her life story. She had been a hidden child in France during the Holocaust, sent to a convent by her parents in an attempt to rescue her. She felt that if the story of the hidden children wasn’t told, it would be forgotten. I thought about what she had said for a very long time, and in 2016 I began to write The World That We Knew.
Discuss how you used magic to reach the emotional heart of such a cruel time in history.
So many novels have been written about the Holocaust that I felt I wanted to tell a story from a different point of view. I approached this time of destruction as a dark fairy tale. It was a time when nothing made sense, and although I most often write to make sense of things, doing so was impossible given the circumstances. As a friend who is a historian wrote, “History is luck.” Who gets on a train and who doesn’t can change everything. We can control our choices and our reactions, but we can’t control fate. I was most interested in writing about the emotional lives of the characters, how they dealt with grief and sorrow, and how they continued to find joy in life.
How do you conduct research that results in such a rich and detailed story?
I always do a huge amount of reading, but for this novel I wanted to see the landscape of the novel for myself and met people who had been directly affected by the history I was writing about. I traveled to France and visited the chateaus where Jewish children were sent when they were separated from their parents. (At first only foreign Jews were deported, then Jews over the age of sixteen, so that parents and children were separated. In the end, all Jews including infants were deported.)
I was fortunate to meet several child survivors in France, now in their eighties and nineties, and several in the United States, all of whom were so generous in sharing their stories with me. I was in awe of the survivors I spoke with, and although I am not telling the story of their lives, the emotions they shared with me were very moving and affected me greatly.
Do you see similarities between the time period in The World That We Knew and the world we're currently living in? What can we do to combat hatred?
In France, the political situation began with a hatred and fear of refugees, then of Jewish refugees, then of all Jews. Hatred starts small and grows larger when it’s ignored. When people are bystanders it grows even larger, and before long it is out of control.
I think that unfortunately there are many parallels between what happened in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and what is happening in our country now, both at the border and throughout the states. It’s so important to speak out and to remember the stories of the past. We have to remember the cost of hatred and the importance of fighting for a world in which everyone has rights.
Was there a character with a past that moved you most?
The mother superior, Sister Marie, who was born Madeleine de Masson into an Algerian Jewish family who changed both their name and their religion so they would fit into French culture. Her story, her deep love for her grandfather, and her conviction that she must do good in the world always moves me and makes me feel grateful that despite the horrors in the world, there will always be people who are compelled to do the right thing.
Did writing a novel set in such a tragic time affect you while you were working on the book? How did you transform sorrow into a work of beauty?
I always start a novel with a question. With The World That We Knew my question was How do survivors of tragedy manage to go on? I found my answer when speaking with survivors in this country and in France. Even those who had suffered enormous loss valued life, wanted to live, and found joy in their families, their work, their memories, and their daily lives.
I do think all artists and writers have a similar goal: to spin straw into gold, to make something beautiful out of dust and ashes.
There are many different types of love in the novel. The power of a mother’s love is particularly moving. Can you tell us about your own relationship with you mother?
My relationship with my mother and grandmother are likely at the heart of this book. There isn’t a day when I don’t think of them. They influenced my life more than anyone. My grandmother told me my first stories and encouraged me when I wanted to be a writer. My first story was about her, and it was the story that made it possible for me to go to the Stanford University [Creative] Writing Program. My mother was an unusual, beautiful, and eccentric person, a lover of books and theater. I do believe that the loss of one’s mother changes everything. No matter how old you are when it happens, you are an orphan.
Ava is an intriguing character who makes us question what it means to be human. Did her story surprise you, and did she change during the writing of the novel?
I never know what characters in a novel will do. I think I understand them, but in the process of writing I grow to understand them at a deeper level. Ava changed because of her experiences, and because she knew love. I didn’t expect her to wish to be human—if anything I thought she was lucky to be “superhuman.” But in loving a child, she became human. It was beyond choice. It was her fate.
You’ve spoken before about the inspiration you find in fairy tales. Were they an inspiration for this story, and if yes, how so?
My earliest readings were fairy tales, myth, fantasy, and science fiction. I do believe that what you read as a child affects you hugely as a person and as a writer. Fairy tales are so psychologically true, more so than any other literature, and children can sense their emotional depth. These stories are often a guide through sorrow to joy, with instructions on how to navigate the world. For me, they are the original literature, told by grandmothers to grandchildren.
The World That We Know is also about navigating through a tragic time, and I thought of it as a story told by a mother and grandmother to a daughter, a cautionary tale and an instruction on how to survive.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’m working on the third book in my Practical Magic series. The second book is a prequel called The Rules of Magic, which takes place in New York City in the 1960s. The third book is about Maria Owens, the original ancestor of the family, in the 1600s. It’s been great fun to be back with the Owens family and to discover their secrets.