In the 1940s, a girl and her younger brother are sent from their home in a Polish ghetto to live with a Christian couple in the countryside. Born as Mira, Ana must change her identity to blend into her new home, while 3-year-old Daniel becomes Oskar. After the war, a Jewish woman kidnaps the children, as well as many others, and takes them on a long, difficult journey to a kibbutz in Israel so they can be raised in the Jewish faith.
While many books have been written about children transported to various places for safety during World War II, Jennifer Rosner’s moving, well-researched second novel takes a penetrating look at the myriad murky moral choices involved and the lives of these children after the war, including their lasting sense of displacement, confusion and conflicting allegiances. Fans of Rosner’s award-winning debut novel, The Yellow Bird Sings—about a Jewish mother and daughter hiding in Poland during World War II—will be pleased to see the author exploring these related strands of history.
Rosner follows Ana and Oskar for decades, revealing the ways their age difference affected their very disparate responses to their turbulent early lives. Meanwhile, she also explores the stories of two other characters: Roger, a Jewish boy taken to a Catholic convent in 1940s France but later sent to live with extended family in Jerusalem; and Renata, a postgraduate archaeology student at Oxford University, who is excited to be on an excavation in 1968 Jerusalem.
Each of these characters must reckon with secrets and the often unintended consequences of their pasts. At first, it’s puzzling to understand how Renata’s 1968 life relates to those of Roger, Ana and Oskar, but by the book’s conclusion, the connection is clear. Rosner does an excellent job of not judging the actions that adults take on behalf of her child characters while also deeply exploring the consequences.
“Maybe there is no real home for a person who has been passed mother to mother to mother,” muses Ana in the 1960s. An excellent choice for book clubs, Once We Were Home gives readers much to ponder.