April 18, 2024
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‘Once We Were Home’ Examines Children’s Search for Self After the War

Review: “Once We Were Home” by Jennifer Rosner. Flatiron Books. 2023. English. Hardcover. 288 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1250855541.

Jennifer Rosner and I first met on a Zoom in October 2020 when I interviewed her about her wonderfully well-received debut novel, “The Yellow Bird Sings.” Now her second novel, “Once We Were Home,” will be published on March 14.

The novel examines the aftermath of World War II on four displaced children and is poignant, heartwarming, lyrical as well as thought-provoking. I surmise that I will not be the only reader who continues to mull over the characters long after completing the book,

Jennifer — like many others — had heard of Jewish children who had been hidden in wartime with false identities, harbored in Christian homes. (In fact, that’s the subject matter of her first novel.) But she had not known what had happened to these children after the war, specifically when their parents had perished and never returned to reclaim them. She came to learn of a mission that was put into place to retrieve orphaned Jewish children and was fascinated by — and also struck by the moral complexity of — this part of Shoah history. It was her meeting with a woman who worked as an operative “for the redemption of Jewish children” which triggered her deep dive into this history, studying testimony and in-depth interviews, and leading her to write this new novel. “Once We Were Home” is a work of fiction, but it is based on true stories.

She initially planned to tell a single storyline, narrating the experiences of an orphaned brother and sister (Oskar and Ana), taken from their Christian rescuers to be placed first in Jewish children’s homes, then on a kibbutz in Palestine. She had aimed to explore the ways their responses differed depending on their ages, memories and connections both with their family of origin and their rescue family. However, she then unearthed information about other cases of Jewish (and Christian) children who were taken in the wake of the war, some by Catholic clergy, some by German soldiers, and kept from their families. This led her to weave in the two additional storylines featuring Roger and Renata.

This novel is very much about the children’s search for self, for identity and belonging. Jennifer was consequently drawn to the ambiguity of the word “once” in the “Once We Were Home” title: was home something the children had once had and lost? Or was it something they had (finally) found? The answer differed, depending on the circumstances and their personality.

Rosner views the tension between Jews as a collective and the individual Jewish children taken for reclamation as an important theme of the novel. After the near annihilation of European Jewry, many believed it was crucial to retrieve the last remaining children. Those involved in this work acted on the principle that they were honoring the parents’ last wishes to leave Jewish descendants. Antisemitism was still rampant in Poland, and even if certain Christian Poles embraced the children in their care, there were others who wouldn’t. On the level of the Jews as a people, retrieval seemed the right thing to do.

For some individual children, though, being taken back proved psychologically complex and painful. The cases varied: it was easier for the children who were older and remembered their roots. For those who were hidden at a very young age, their Christian caretakers were the only family they knew, and it was an agonizing rupture in addition to other losses they’d endured. It’s worth noting that the individual circumstances and feelings of the children did not factor into reclamation efforts. The Jewish people had been persecuted as Jews, and the reclamation proceeded in the same vein: the children, as Jews, belonged back with their people.

The focus in this novel is on the individual, emotional and psychological reactions of children who were retrieved in this manner, and Oskar and Ana are the vehicles used to telegraph this. During her research efforts, Jennifer also discovered a diverse range of feelings among the operatives who reclaimed the children. All had been driven by a moral imperative to save Judaism. Yet, on reflection, some later questioned whether particular — and especially wrenching — child removals were justified. Linguistic disagreements over how to describe the work were revealing, with terms ranging from “rescuing,” “redeeming,” and “reclaiming” to “ransoming” the children.

Jennifer’s personal perspective is that this was an incredibly complicated situation; moreover, she felt humbled knowing that the true contours of this history likely defy our understanding, our knowability, and even our vocabulary. Nonetheless, she felt it was important to grapple with it.

She has created a diverse palette of heartwarming characters; some are primary and others are secondary or tertiary, but all have important stories, characteristics and behaviors. Some of the characters are aware of their pasts, while others aren’t; there are intimacies — and also secrets — that shape their development and determine their futures.

The four main characters struggle in distinctive ways with rupture and displacement, and also with the daunting project of re-rooting in the face of loss. They each bring particular challenges and resiliencies. Roger has a very creative mind, Oskar has a deep connection to nature, Ana is full of passion and Renata has a desire to dig for layers of truth. These individual aspects lead each to forge new connections and cope with their experiences in unique ways, and offer the reader a sense of the variety of responses to these historical events.

One of the very effective literary devices used in “The Yellow Bird Sings” and in this novel also, are brief, yet powerfully emotive sentences which pack a punch. Adjectives are carefully selected and constructed in short, staccato sentences which are pregnant with meaning. Jennifer writes intuitively and keeps herself attuned both to the thematic and to the emotional. Her training is as a philosopher; but at heart, she is obviously a poet.

The struggle to belong or fit, to feel oneself part of a community and find home, are timeless and universal themes. The actual displacement of children — specifically, the alarming large variety of cases of children moved about in accordance with adult beliefs and missions — is quite pertinent to our current moment, as we read news of Ukrainian children being seized by Russians; as courts decide on the placement of Indigenous children; and in so many other scenarios.

The resilience of every survivor of the Shoah, hidden or displaced, reclaimed or not, is inspiring and humbling. The children in this story find their way, in the face of great losses and rupture, with an openness of their hearts and minds which we all might do well to emulate.

Jennifer Rosner will present “Once We Were Home” in a Zoom event sponsored by Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck on Thursday, April 20. Pre-order the book at the Judaica House in Teaneck or on Amazon to read over Pesach.

By Tanya Krim

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