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Riveting novels portray stories of loss and survival

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Jennifer Robson has leapt from academia to writing six novels set around WWII. Our Darkest Night gets rave reviews and may be her best yet. (Image: Jennifer-robson.com)

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Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, occurs on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan. This year it falls on April 27. Here are 3 fabulous books well worth reading, about the Holocaust and the lives it affected.

Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson, William Morrow paperback, $17. 

It isn’t often that one reads a novel and has to keep checking to see if it isn’t a true story. This is the case with Our Darkest Night. What is more revealing are the acknowledgments where we learn Ms. Robson, who lives in Toronto, has a doctorate from the University of Oxford, and is not only the author of five earlier novels but took great pains to make this work a real historical novel without calling it that.

The story centers on Jewish Antonina Mazin, who lives with her father, a doctor, in Venice as life for Italian Jews becomes more difficult in 1943 with the Nazi occupation of Italy. With his wife in a retirement home, Dr. Mazin relies upon his friendship with a priest from a small farming community to send his daughter away. The priest suggests a young man, Nico Gerardi, who has left the seminary and the idea of priesthood, to return to the family farm to help his widowed father and six young siblings.

Antonina will pose as his bride. During the experience there, to the farm comes a Nazi officer who had been in the seminary and who carries a vendetta against Nico which continues with Nina.  Every place Mrs. Robson describes it as real except the town where the hero’s farm is located. This is a fictional amalgam. She also actually was inspired to write about the Gerardi farm and the Mazin Venice home by real places.

Her descriptions on the Gerardi farm and the village of Mezzo Ciel are based upon interviews with her husband’s relatives. On a visit to his relatives, they learned that his grandparents offered  shelter to Jewish families. Because of the story of their courage, Mrs. Robson, a gentile, decided to write this novel. 

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The heart and soul of the novel belongs to Nina and the thousands of Italian Jews who were persecuted, terrorize, murdered and silenced. She was not a real person, but her story was inspired by real people.  How this young Jewish woman, who dreams to become a doctor, survives with her pretend husband within his family as the war progresses is the essence of the plot.

Without revealing more of the emotional, powerful plot, a beautiful love story emerges, making the reading very compelling. Map and research photos on Mrs. Robson’s website adds to the reality.   

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The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner, Picado, $16.99 paperback. 

Jennifer Rosner lives in Western Massachusetts. Her daughters were born deaf. While at a book event for her memoir about deafness, she was approached by a woman who told her about her experience hiding in an attic with her mother during World War II.

From this seed, her novel grew to a story of a mother, Roza, in Poland 1941, hiding in the barn of a Christian with her 5-year-old daughter, Shira. 

In the first half of the novel, to soothe her daughter and pass the time while in hiding, Roza invents a story about a girl in an enchanted garden who is forbidden to make a sound. A yellow bird sings the songs the girl composes in her head like Shira, who also has a special musical aptitude. In this make-believe world, Róża can shield Shira from the horrors that surround them. 

Rosner studied voice and trained to become an opera singer, her father played violin, and she tells an interviewer, “music is a connective tissue linking mother and daughter.” Rosner says her novel is, at heart, “about connectivity, about beauty and hope in the face of irrevocable loss. It’s also about the costs of war, especially to children.”

In the second half of the novel, there are the experiences of Shira in a convent orphanage and Roza’s life with the partisans and an unusual ending in 1965. The book is beautifully written, and the plot is riveting and heartrending and presents a side to the Holocaust not often known. 

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House on  Endless Waters by Emuna Elon, Atria Books, $ 17 paperback, 314 pp. 

Emuna Elon is an Israeli novelist and journalist, women’s rights activist and teacher of Judaism, Hasidism and Hebrew literature.

In this novel, translated from the Hebrew, a well-known Amsterdam-born, fictionalized, 70-year-old Israeli author, Yoel Blum, has returned to Amsterdam to publicize the translation of his latest book into Dutch.

He had come to Israel as an infant with his mother, Sonia, and sister, Nettie, but he grew up with a warning from his mother never to return to Amsterdam. While on the visit, he and his wife are shocked to see a museum video showing his mother, father, sister and an infant.

Returning to Israel, he questions his sister and travels back to discover his early childhood and a search for identity. The book then proceeds as he fills notebooks and reconstructs his family’s life in 1940s Netherlands. 

Emuna Elon is an internationally bestselling novelist, journalist, and women’s activist. She set House on Endless Waters in Amsterdam when a fluke sighting causes a visiting writer to question how the Holocaust had affected his parents and family. (Image: simonandschuster.ca)

Ms. Elon integrates the “lonely, caged-within-himself  Yoel” and the woman about whom he is writing, his mother, Sonia.” She read books, articles and other archival materials and watched filmed testimonies concerning Dutch history, Dutch Jewry and Holland during World War Two. She also interviewed Dutch Holocaust survivors and children of survivors (the “hidden” children) trying to understand not only the historical facts but also their long-term implications.

Ms. Elon writes that she structured the novel as a story within a story, as “the city’s past came to life within the story of the present.” The novel then describes the writing process of his novel as he filled in the gaps of the story his sister had told him. 

Each time I picked up the book, I could not stop reading, and my own two visits to Amsterdam were in my mind as I read. This is such a fascinating, powerful book, both in content and in Ms. Elon’s writing style, although fiction, offers a look at World War II Dutch Jewry as if it could be someone’s biography.  

Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, food writer and author (Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel), nine cookbooks (including What’s Cooking at Hadassah College.) She lived in Israel from 1970-1980; she and her late husband, Barry, came to live in Jerusalem in 2008, where she works as a foreign correspondent for North American Jewish publications, lectures to senior citizen residences, walks in English in Machaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market. She has been book reviewing for 40 years. 

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Happy reading!

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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