When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.
18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.
Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.
This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.
I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.
I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.