They Went Left

  • By Monica Hesse
  • Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Caroline Bock
  • April 14, 2020

This Holocaust story will have readers questioning their realities and counting their blessings.

Some wouldn’t choose a book about a Holocaust survivor as an antidote to a pandemic. Still, I found myself engrossed in Monica Hesse’s third historical YA novel, They Went Left, set in 1945 Poland and Germany. As I read this immersive story from within my shelter-in-place suburban home, I kept thinking in a wry, melancholic way: Things could be worse.

However, as I emerged from reading, I was glad it was 2020, not 1945. I have my immediate family around me (even if we are going a bit stir crazy) and I am grateful for them. 

“The last time I saw Abek: Barbed wire, rusty metal knots,” teenager Zofia Lederman remembers of her younger brother in the prologue of this haunting novel. She is a Polish Jew caught in the horrors of the Holocaust. Her family, all except Abek — They went left — was murdered in the gas chambers or in the roundup of Jews in her city.

*****

I finish reading and I call my younger brother, not so young anymore, in his 50s, a nurse practitioner in Cleveland. I need to make sure he’s okay. He does not have enough personal protective equipment, not enough masks or gloves, but he is improvising. He is doing the best he can.

“Are you being careful?” I ask, not for the first time in recent weeks.

“Don’t worry about me,” he replies. “I’ll survive,” and he hurries off the phone.

*****

They Went Left is about memory. It’s about how trauma (terrible, unimaginable trauma) damages and changes us. Zofia is a survivor. She has a skill, as a seamstress, that helps her live through the horror of the camps.

Before the war, her family owned a small clothing factory in Sosnowiec, Poland. There is a lovely image throughout the book of her sewing messages into the seams of various garments — including one about the alphabet that starts with “A is Abek” and ends with “Z is Zofia,” a family history that foreshadows the novel’s hopeful ending. 

When the story opens, it is 1945. The war is over. Zofia has been liberated from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp by Russian soldiers. She immediately begins searching for her brother. They had agreed to meet at their apartment if they both survived, and so she returns to Sosnowiec. She does not find him at their stripped-bare apartment. Neither does she find him in the refugee camp in Germany, where many like her have gathered.

The refugee camp teems with life — the wedding of her roommate is planned; travel to Palestine, under the British mandate, is debated; decent food and clothing from aid societies are restorative; and love is found. Zofia, however, feels she cannot make any plans without her brother.

*****

I can’t disconnect this review from the current pandemic. My brother is four years younger than me. We have not always been close — distance and stubbornness kept us apart — but in recent years, we have drawn closer.

I text him. He’s doing okay. He lets me know that he is going to do emergency-room duty in the local city hospital. If he had told me that he was going to war, I think my reaction would be the same: a mix of pride and fear. Maybe more fear. I keep this secret from him.

“They are lucky to have you as a nurse,” I say, wanting to say more, but there is no time. He has to go.

*****

Everyone in They Went Left has a terrible secret, which, when revealed, changes the trajectory of their lives. Zofia’s secret is connected to her shattered memory. It is also central to the question at the heart of the book: Can we forgive ourselves for what we have done to survive?

One warning: some of the descriptions, especially of the death camps, are explicit and difficult to digest. In the acknowledgements, the author notes that this story comes from extensive research of first-person Holocaust accounts, not from family history. The depth of research is evident.

Without giving away the ending, let us be thankful there are characters like Zofia Lederman who show us we can survive the most devastating traumas. And, ultimately, if we are brave and lucky like Zofia, we might help another survive, too.

And my brother? I am lucky to have him, and I’ll be sure to tell him so the next time we speak.

Caroline Bock’s debut short-story collection, Carry Her Home, was winner of the 2018 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House. It is now available on Audible and iTunes. She is also the author of the young-adult novels LIE and Before My Eyes.

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