In this debut historical novel, a Lithuanian girl who grows up under Soviet rule suddenly learns to her astonishment that her biological mother is Jewish and lives in Israel.
Raisa’s life is caught in the crucible of European history—first, her native Vilna, Poland, is transformed into Vilnius, Lithuania, under the oppressive rule of the Soviet Union. Next, life becomes intolerable for Jews after the Nazis invade, changing what was once a “center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe” into a dangerously inhospitable environment for Jews. A trusted friend, Pani Orlovich, betrays Raisa and her family—Pani reports their hideout to German authorities. While fleeing for her life, Raisa is separated from her husband, Israel. Raisa’s traumatic experiences haunt her—she wonders whether she is the “only Jew left on the planet.” She makes a tortured decision to leave her infant daughter, Sonia, with a stranger, Elena Stepanovna Sokol, who is likely better equipped to guarantee both the child’s safety and emotional well-being. Reiches poignantly chronicles Sonia’s upbringing under Soviet rule and her callow commitment to an idealistic Communism. Her stance is challenged by the revelation that Elena isn’t her biological mother and that Sonia is, as a matter of ancestry, a Jew. Now in Israel, Raisa presents Sonia with a choice as enticing as it is aching—stay in Lithuania with the only mother she’s ever known or join Raisa in Israel. The author powerfully captures a dark period for European Jewry in this heart-wrenching and complex tale, deceptively conveyed in simple, unadorned prose. At the heart of her novel is the question of unsettled identity—Sonia is a Jew whether she likes it or not in the eyes of her peers: “Being Jewish is pretty complicated. Once you are born Jewish, there is no choice. The world will not let you not to be Jewish.” This is a story that in one way or another has been told many times before, but Reiches’ take is nonetheless emotionally intelligent and historically authentic.
A riveting tale of the generational havoc Jews suffered as a result of global persecution.