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372 pages, Hardcover
First published September 24, 2019
Ruth knew what evil could befall a girl traveling alone. Especially now, when there were demons dressed in army uniforms on every corner. Ruth knew of them as mazikin, terrible creatures whose work was the misery of humankind. They had accomplished their work in Berlin…newspapers printed captions beneath photographs of Jewish businessmen and lawyers and professors. Here are the animals. Do you know this Beast? That was how evil spoke. 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. To fight what was wicked, magic and faith were needed. This was what one must turn to when there was no other option.Berlin, Spring, 1941. Hanni Kohn’s husband, Simon, a Jewish doctor, has been murdered, for being a Jewish doctor. She lives with her mother, Bobeshi, and Lea, her twelve-year-old daughter. The old lady was in no condition to travel, so Hanni was stuck, but there was still a chance that she could save her child.
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 have 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.She finds a rabbi renowned for his expertise and begs him to make a golem (a magical being made from clay) to protect her daughter until she was safe. His wife will not even let Hanni speak to him, but his daughter, Ettie, denied the religious tuition she craved, but an always eager listener at doorways, offers to do the deed. Thus is born Ava, (based on the word Chava, which means life) a creature built not just of clay, water, and mysticism, but of tears and menstrual blood, a female golem, sworn to protect her charge, Lea, as others of her kind had been charged with protecting Jews from worldly evil in the past. But Hanni is warned not to let the creature persist beyond the duration of her mission, as golems were inclined to increasing their knowledge and power over time. Hanni begs the creature to love her daughter as if she were her own. She tells Lea that Ava is a distant cousin.
Partly, I felt it was my last chance to meet survivors and try to understand how they could go through something like that and continue to be in the world. That’s what I really wanted to find out. After all that has happened, can this still be the world that they knew? (The title alludes to that.) And how can they still want to be in it? - from the Moment Magazine interviewHoffman traveled to France and visited the chateaus, homes for children, that had been refuges for refugees. She met with Holocaust survivors both in the USA and in France to inform her knowledge of this heretofore unknown (to her) aspect of that dark, dark time. In an interview with the Philadelphia Enquirer, Hoffman recalls, One really amazing gentleman came to the country from Paris, and we went to the village where he had been a hidden child. He hadn’t been back. It was extremely emotional. She did not limit her view to what had happened in the past but sees growing dangers in the world we know today
"I was writing about what hate does, the effects of the fear of people who are ‘other.’ I didn’t realize that so much of what was happening in France during World War II was anti-refugee, that it began not as a movement that was anti-Jewish but simply anti-refugee. So I found myself writing about how it’s really a choice, about how easy it can be to look in the other direction. These things happen slowly and then, all of a sudden, they have happened.” - from the Bookpage interviewThe secondary characters are amazingly well realized, from a doctor who treats resistance fighters, to Marianne’s father, who keeps bees on his farm, to Sister Marie, a nun with a complicated past, who protects refugees. There is a heron who plays a significant and touching role. Tales told by Bobeshi are recounted throughout the story, family lore regarding wolves as often as not. The Kohns feel a close kinship with them, a sort of family totem. Hoffman’s earliest exposure to story was the tales she heard from her Russian Jewish grandmother. We do not know if Hoffman’s family shares the Kohns’ lupine affinity. Granny is nicely represented here.
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.- from the Moment Magazine interview