Once We Were Home: A Novel
- By Jennifer Rosner
- Flatiron Books
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Marilyn Oser
- March 29, 2023
Children of the Holocaust struggle to reclaim what they lost.
In the years 1939-1945, when Nazi Germany dominated Europe, an estimated 1.5 million Jewish children died in ghettos and concentration camps. Some Jews managed to place their sons and daughters with non-Jewish families, or in orphanages or church-run institutions. Just how many children were hidden or adopted is unknown, but thousands survived, and heroic efforts were made on the part of surviving family members and Jewish agencies to locate them after the war.
Christian families, too, primarily in occupied Poland, had their blonde, blue-eyed children — an estimated 200,000 of them — snatched away to be brought up in the Reich; these youngsters, as well, were sought out by international agencies at the war’s end.
The plight of children dislocated by war is the theme of Jennifer Rosner’s Once We Were Home. Set between 1940 and 1968, her narrative portrays the haunted inner lives of children who belong nowhere, who must struggle to find first themselves and then a home. Their fear, their anger, their confusion, and their sense of abandonment come alive through four characters.
Roger is 7 when we meet him in a monastery in France. Having only the dimmest understanding of his Jewish birth, he welcomes the embrace of the Catholic world even as his searching, questioning intellect resists dogma of any kind. After the war, a Jewish agency identifies him, yet the Church — which has baptized him — ducks the demand to relinquish him, fearing for his eternal soul. Eventually, Roger is forcibly given up to an aunt in the new state of Israel, but the irreconcilable parts of his identity continue to plague him.
Siblings Ana and Oskar, 7 and 3, respectively, have been taken in by a loving Polish couple eager for a family of their own. The children are well cared for, Oskar quickly forgetting his Jewish parentage, while Ana clings to her memories. Abducted at war’s end by a Jewish reclamation agency and relocated to a kibbutz, Oskar mourns the only home he can remember. Ana, on the other hand, eagerly embraces Israeli life, with its ethos of a new Jewish future. Each child feels pain over their perceived betrayal by the other.
Finally, there’s Renata, a post-graduate archaeology student avid about unearthing the buried facts of ancient history. Despite her sharp mind, she has grown up without questioning her mother, who fled with her from Germany to England and has concealed the truth of Renata’s past.
To trace in alternating chapters the growing perceptions of four separate characters requires agility, balance, and the ability both to keep the stories distinct and then to weave them together seamlessly. It’s no easy task, yet Rosner accomplishes it handily. The novel’s language is clean and lyrical, never overwrought; it tells each story with tenderness and restraint. Here, for example, is the author’s depiction of the first blooming of early love:
“I’ve gotten sugar on your cheek” he says. He leans in to kiss her there, a soft brush on the curve of her face.
“Also on your neck.”
He moves his lips to her neck. A flush rises.
Reaching for the counter, coating her fingers in the powdery sifted sugar, she touches his lips.
The novel is full of riddles to be solved literally (in Roger’s case, for he loves a good joke) and figuratively, especially in the histories of Ana and Renata. Nesting dolls and nesting boxes, the wayward roots of trees, and the tattered objects and photographs the children carry in their pockets — all are rich in symbolism and serve simultaneously to identify the separate strands of the narrative and to tie them together.
Nesting, in fact, is evocative of identity within identity, of child within mother through generations, of secrets hidden within secrets, and of the longing for home. At times, these symbols grow cumbersome, such as in the novel’s italicized section heads where wooden nesting dolls come to life. One doll reads an important letter that, admittedly, would’ve been difficult for the author to incorporate into the narrative. Still, a frank presentation of the letter wouldn’t have violated Rosner’s omniscient point of view. Magical and mythical, the dolls inject a note that feels wrong amid the book’s quiet realism.
The best passages pull the action forward while also revealing movement in the inner lives of the characters. At the kibbutz, for instance, the adolescent Ana has taken a toddler under her wing. When the little girl is reclaimed by her mother, Oskar “feels a flash of gladness for his sister’s sorrow.” Why gladness? Because he resents Ana’s insensitivity to his sadness at the loss of their Polish family. But the next moment, his dependence on her comes through when he perceives Ana forming an attachment to a boy her own age. “Then the boy next to her, Yehoshua, extends an arm to comfort her.” At Rosner’s best, every action is subtly and compactly laden.
The children’s struggles to knit their ruptured lives together are convincing. Nothing about their loss and longing is simple. Related issues of complicity, of good intentions leading to unstable consequences, of ambiguities inherent even in efforts to do what’s best — these are clothed in flesh and rendered meaningful. Once We Were Home is one of those necessary novels depicting yet another aspect of the Holocaust that requires exploration.
Marilyn Oser is the author of the novels This Storied Land, November to July, Even You, and Rivka’s War; the blog “Streets of Israel”; and other short fiction and nonfiction. A recipient of the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Prize, she has been called “a particularly gifted novelist” by the Midwest Review.