2 June 2021 WHEN THE WORLD WAS OURS by Liz Kessler, Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, May 2021, 352p., ISBN: 978-1-5344-9965-2


“Well we all have a face 

That we hide away forever

And we take them out 

And show ourselves

When everyone is gone”

-- Billy Joel, “The Stranger” (1977)

Billy Joel’s father, a German Jew, escaped the Nazis and reached America, via Switzerland and Cuba. 


“President Joe Biden on Friday denounced a recent increase in antisemitic incidents in a statement, calling them ‘despicable, unconscionable, un-American.’

‘In the last weeks, our nation has seen a series of anti-Semitic attacks, targeting and terrorizing American Jews,’ Biden said. ‘We have seen a brick thrown through a window of a Jewish-owned business in Manhattan, a swastika carved into the door of a synagogue in Salt Lake City, families threatened outside a restaurant in Los Angeles, and museums in Florida and Alaska, dedicated to celebrating Jewish life and culture and remembering the Holocaust, vandalized with anti-Jewish messages.’”

--NBC News (5/28/21)


As a child, I had a friend whose mother had numbers tattooed on her arm. Over the years, I had other friends who’d lost relatives in the Holocaust. And I once had a girlfriend whose dad, as a child, had been active in the Hitler Youth movement. These days, I have a connection to a nonagenarian who, as a teenager,  jumped from a death camp-bound cattle car, escaping as the Nazi guards shot at her with rifles.  


Over the years, I’ve read and written about some truly outstanding books relating to Hitler, the Nazi movement, and the Hitler Youth movement. But WHEN THE WORLD WAS OURS moved me like nothing I’ve read before. It breaks my heart that the author Liz Kessler is a Brit, not an American, since it means this not-to-be-missed read is not eligible for the Newbery Medal. It’s that good--a powerful and impeccably-written story that I wholeheartedly recommend for 10-14 year-olds. 


WHEN THE WORLD WAS OURS features three young Viennese schoolchildren who, in the mid-1930s, at the outset of the story, are innocent and inseparable best friends. Leo is a Jewish boy, Elsa is a Jewish girl, and Max is a gentile boy. The story is told from the alternating points of view of the three friends and is organized by calendar year, beginning in 1936 and concluding in 1945. Elsa’s and Leo’s chapters are written in the first person. Max’s chapters are written in the third person, making Max a bit more distant and mysterious to the reader.


A pivotal event takes place at the beginning of the story when, for Leo’s ninth birthday, his father treats the three friends to an outing. The day’s highlight is a Ferris wheel ride featuring large enclosed cars in which the riders can move about.


While on the ride, Leo’s father, a professional photographer, takes a group photo of the three friends at the top of the wheel. Later, he gives each a copy of the photo as a souvenir. These beloved photos mark a cherished friendship that has already hit its figurative and literal high point, and will quickly become a memory.


After the photography that day, Leo’s dad goofs around on the Ferris wheel with the three young friends, causing Leo to accidentally stumble into a British couple. After apologies, Leo’s dad converses with and befriends the couple. They end up trading contact information. Later in the story, the British couple will serve a pivotal role in Leo’s survival. (We know ahead of time that Leo will survive the Nazis because the Leo character was inspired by the author’s father. This means, of course, that Leo must survive in order for the author to exist and tell the story.)


Max has a strained relationship with his father, a Nazi officer on his way up. Max’s father instructs him to no longer hang out with Jewish kids. Longing to please his father, Max somehow convinces himself that joining the Hitler Youth and developing a hatred of Jews has nothing to do with his two old friends.


In 1937 the strained friendship is severed when, fearing the cruelty of the Nazis, Elsa’s family moves to Czechoslovakia. 


Max’s family, on the other hand,  moves into a furnished penthouse apartment in Munich that seems to have belonged to a wealthy Jewish family who were forced out. In 1943, Max’s family moves again, to a home near Auschwitz. Max’s dad has been appointed to a top position there, and he gets Max a job there too. 


The story reaches a breathtaking crescendo when we witness an interweaving of the three family stories years after the Ferris wheel ride: Elsa’s family is sent to Auschwitz on a death camp train. Leo’s now-emaciated dad is there, too, forced into slave labor in exchange for staying alive. And Max and his dad are working there. 


The book is prefaced with a content warning. The story includes many vivid examples of the Nazis’s cruelty and is an intense read. I frequently cried while I read it, and often sobbed between readings, thinking about what took place a mere decade before I was born.


That’s the thing that really gets me. When one is a child, history seems like long ago. But from my current vantage point, ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago is just not that long ago. 


Given that anti-Semitism has never gone away, WHEN THE WORLD WAS OURS is an important read. With its fine writing and storytelling, this one gets my highest recommendation. 


Richie Partington, MLIS

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