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“He knew what she was holding. He thought he had killed his memories when he'd destroyed his own copy. He thought his heart had hardened in stone, like his father had always wanted. But here it was again, risen from the flames like a phoenix that was telling him he could fly. Just like he believed he could all those years ago,” Max. —When the World Was Ours
When the World Was Ours
by Liz Kessler
Leo Grunberg spends his ninth birthday riding Vienna’s Ferris wheel with his two very best friends, Elsa and Max. While at the top, they swear they can see the whole world. They promise each other that they “will never forget the day [that they] were kings and queen of all Vienna.” To ensure that that promise will be kept, Leo’s father takes a picture and makes a copy for each of them.
But Europe is descending into war, and Max’s father is rapidly growing intolerant of his son’s two Jewish friends. As danger descends around Leo and Elsa’s families, their world falls apart. Soon, the lives of all three children take fateful turns when they move to separate countries. With their lives taking them across Europe—to Germany, England, Prague, and Poland—will they ever find their way back to one another?
The war dramatically changes the three friends’ lives. After Leo’s father is arrested for being Jewish, Leo and his mother escape to England. On the other hand, Elsa finds a short-lived sanctuary in Prague before being forced into a ghetto and eventually to a concentration camp. All the while, her hope that better days will return gradually dissipates. Meanwhile, starved for a sense of belonging he has only ever felt with Leo and Elsa, Max throws himself into the Hitler Youth. He convinces himself that his old friends could not have been Jewish, and when his father insists that they were, he convinces himself that they were never really his friends. All the while, one vivid childhood memory continues to link the three together.
When the World Was Ours alternates among the narratives of the three children. Interestingly, each perspective takes on a different style. Max’s is presented in the third person while Elsa’s and Leo’s are in the first person. Additionally, Elsa’s is in the present tense while both boys’ are in the past tense. Though a little jarring at first, this technique ultimately allows the narratives to stand apart from one another in such a way that the reader will never lose track of which perspective they are currently reading. The characters’ heartbreaking journeys are extremely well told and will leave a lasting impact on readers.
The book’s powerful climax occurs when Max’s father secures him a position as a guard at Auschwitz, and he is tasked to kill his first Jew, assuring himself that this is “the defining moment. Everything came to this.” He is ready to prove himself as a true Nazi but is taken aback when the emaciated girl beyond his pistol utters his name in an all too familiar voice. When she smiles at him, he knows for sure she is Elsa. In these pages, it becomes terrifyingly clear how easy it can be for ordinary people to be swept up in such a horrific regime.
When The World Was Ours is a powerful must-read but it is not for the faint of heart. The story, which is based on a true story, is an unflinching look at one of the most horrific events in recent history. Readers will find it difficult to forget the characters’ trauma and will walk away with a determination to never let the atrocities of World War II happen again. Readers who would like to learn more about the Holocaust should also read Elie Wiesel’s autobiography Night. To learn more about what happened to the Nazi’s after the war ended, grab a copy of The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb.
- In the months before Elsa moves away, Elsa and Max have grown particularly fond of each other. When she informs her friends she is leaving, Max kisses her. “At first, her mouth was pursed up in shock. Then it softened and for two blissful seconds, their lips stayed together in a promise.”
- As a teenager, Leo gets close to a girl. One day, he says, “[during] a sudden attack of bravery on my part. . .I kissed her.” She reciprocates and they begin dating.
- A group of men forces Leo’s father and two other Jewish men to scrub the pavement. One of the men, who he recognizes as Max’s father, kicks his father in the stomach “so hard that Papa fell forward, his face landing in the puddle.”
- Leo’s father was attacked at his local synagogue. “His face was cut and bleeding and he was limping.”
- While visiting a concentration camp for the first time, Max witnesses a prisoner “get punched in the stomach so hard he [falls] to the ground.”
- Elsa sees a man being pulled into a shed by an SS officer during a line-up. When they return, the man’s “left eye is closed and already swelling. He’s limping. He has blood dripping from his forehead.”
- While at a concentration camp, Elsa learns that two men are being punished for sending letters to their wives. The inmates are forced to watch both men being whipped. When one man begs for mercy, the officer “kicks him in the stomach so hard that [he] almost flies through the air and lands on his side.”
- Multiple people suffocate while being transported to Auschwitz in a cramped train car. The guards stop three times to “throw out the dead.”
- Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, Elsa’s family is sent to the gas chambers. When Elsa asks to go with them, a guard laughs and says, “‘Believe me, you don’t want to go that way.’”
- Elsa’s friend Greta plans to escape from the camp, but her plan is discovered by the guards. She is beaten to death. Elsa describes, “I watch one guard take hold of her while another kicks her in the stomach. And then I cannot watch anymore.”
- Elsa is sent to be executed and Max is tasked with shooting her. Elsa recognizes him and experiences a surge of hope, telling him he doesn’t need to do this. Overwhelmed, Max nearly walks to her before being coerced back into the act by his two fellow guards. He decides this moment is no different from the other tests of “his true commitment to the regime.” He hesitantly raises his pistol, but one of the other guards fires his weapon, apparently intending to kill Elsa himself. The bullet instead hits Max “in the head.”
- After shooting Max, the two guards panic and decide to stage the death to look like a suicide. In despair, Elsa demands they kill her too, saying she is done with her life. She closes her eyes, not letting them “into her soul while they [empty] out their own,” and is shot, but the death is not described in detail. This entire sequence spans 15 pages, alternating between Max’s and Elsa’s perspectives.
Drugs and Alcohol
- Leo and Max’s parents had “drunk wine and sat talking together.”
- Leo’s family believes in Judaism. Leo and his family “say Shabbat prayers every Friday night.”
- When Leo’s father returns home from synagogue, he states that he and several friends were “praying for an end” to their persecution.
- While not as religious as Leo’s family, Elsa says that her family has begun “going to shul (Jewish services) on Saturday mornings when [they] can, and every Friday night [they] light candles . . . and say a brachah – a blessing – over them.”
- Elsa hears several fellow passengers on the cart to Auschwitz reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.
- When Leo’s father returns to his family at the end of the war, he informs his son that both Elsa and Max died at Auschwitz. The family lights a candle and recites Kaddish for Leo’s friends.