Alice Hoffman’s novel, The World That We Knew, begins in the spring of 1941 in Berlin with the murder of Hanni Kohn’s husband Simon during a riot outside the Jewish hospital. When she is not permitted to bury him and his body is used for animal feed, the world itself does not have room for all her grief. With rules changing by the hour for Jews and so many deaths that the death angel no longer has room for all the names in his Book of Death, Hanni becomes desperate to find a way to save her daughter Lea.
In despair, she finds her way to the rabbi’s daughter, who has broken tradition by listening in on her father’s conversations and learning things a female should not know. The daughter Ettie creates a golem, an otherworldly creature, whose sole living mission will be the protection of Lea. The golem Ava, Lea, and Ettie and the Levi brothers, Victor and Julien who start out in Paris the same spring live lives of danger, hiding, and resisting for themselves and others as their lives intertwine and they try to save those who are being rounded up by the Nazi concentration. The story leads them to a school in the mountains where three thousand Jews were saved. Azriel, the Angel of Death, hovers continuously in the background, taking his toll. Then there is the instruction in the Lea’s locket that Lea is not supposed to see until Ava has helped her reach safety, yet both she and Ava get a glimpse.
On the flyleaf before the first chapter the quote from Exodus 23:9 gives the theme of the book. “The strangers in your midst shall be to you as the native-born, for you know the stranger’s heart, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Many of the secondary characters, who hold their place in the book well, follow this mandate.
This novel, carefully researched, feels real even down to the characterization of the golem and the death angel and keeps the reader wanting just one more chapter before she closes the book.