My Real Name Is Hanna
By Tara Lynn Masih
Mandel Vilar Press, 2018, $16.95
This novel is a boundary-crosser. Although it is categorized as young adult fiction, it has depth and depiction of harsh life circumstances that make it entirely suitable for adults. Although it is a work of fiction, it is well researched and could pass as a memoir or a work of Holocaust history.
As Holocaust stories go, this novel provides a ray of hope for the human condition, both in the way the family works together to improve their chances of survival and in the covert help they receive from some of their non-Jewish neighbors. Unlike many Holocaust novels, this one puts the emphasis on “righteous gentiles” who are motivated to their good deeds by their caring relationships with their Jewish neighbors. They are not the high-profile saviors such as Raoul Wallenberg or Oskar Schindler, but unsung heroes who provided food or shelter for a while for Jews hiding in the forests.
Hanna is a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl living in a shtetl in the border lands that alternated between Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, when Hitler invades from the west. At first, her family can stay in their home, which is not in the path of the occupiers, but her life changes in that she can no longer go to school. She continues to visit her closest neighbor, Mrs. Perovich, the family’s Shabbes goy, with whom she paints decorative eggs called pysanky. The warmth of their relationship is shown when Mrs. Perovich tells Hanna to call her Alla.
As the Germans determine to make the village Judenfrei, the family must leave and go into the forest, where they stay in a rundown backwoods cabin offered by Yuri, a friendly forester. Yuri also designates a “witness tree” where he leaves marks communicating better or worsening conditions. When he marks an O, that means there are Germans in the forest and the family must get out. They move on to the most hidden space imaginable, a series of underground caves with a lake and a stream running through them. Here they live, several families together, in pitch blackness with occasional nighttime excursions to forage for food. Finally, they learn from a sign on the witness tree that the Soviets have arrived and it is safe to come to the surface.
I found it hard to believe that such a large family could have survived underground for so long, but their story is based on fact. In October 1942 the 38-person extended family of Esther Stermer sought refuge in underground caves in western Ukraine for almost a year and a half. Their story was told in a documentary film, No Place on Earth, and in a memoir, We Fight to Survive, told by Esther Stermer’s grandchildren.
The author adds a postscript noting the relevance of the story at “a time in which the KKK and White Nationalists would march again and bring forth from the depths of an ugly, deadly history their rallying racist and anti-Semitic chants.”
Roselyn Bell is the editor of the JOFA Journal. She recently completed an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Rutgers.
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