My Real Name is Hanna, by Tara Lynn Masih. Mandel Vilar Press. 208 pages. Trade paperback with flap $16.95.
In her brilliant, poetic novel that reads like Holocaust testimony, Tara Masih presents a family’s horrifying journey to escape ultimate victimhood. In her early teens as the narrative begins, Hanna Slivka, as if keeping a diary, takes her future readers through the steps of her family’s struggle with Nazi oppression.
In important ways a coming-of-age story, this novel begins by describing the situation for Jews in the small town (shtetele) of Kwasova as Nazi forces cross the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Kwasova is a community that had been Austrian and Polish; its residents can’t be sure of what it will become next. This is especially true of its Jewish community, which before Hitler’s tyranny could at least get along with its non-Jewish neighbors.
The attempt to relocate and/or annihilate the Jews begins with orders to brand them. Hannah’s father tells the family: “The SS issued orders to the Ukrainian police and the Jewish Council. Jews are now being ordered to register and to make their own armbands, a blue Mogen Dovid, our Jewish star, sewn on to a white background.”
As the status of even substantial Jewish families falls, the father, Abram, realizes that maintaining housing and obtaining food will soon become impossible. It is also clear that hiding in barns, which worked for a while, won’t work anymore: their fellow townspeople will betray them.
Money and cherished valuables are disappearing. Now the Jewish families of the town must somehow disappear as well. The victims, in public opinion and via effective propaganda, have been transformed into the cause of the war that is threatening all of Europe.
Through her teenage narrator, Ms. Masih shows the material and psychological effects of these circumstance on the members of this family and another family with which they make joint plans for survival. They need to act quickly before that are marched into ghettos or simply murdered “in plain sight” to underscore SS power.
There is a feature of their lives that is especially moving. Facing disaster, these Jewish families manage to observe their religion’s precepts and holy days. They hide the synagogues torah and other important items. Such dedication becomes a source of strength.
How does a family hide in a forest? After walking a great distance from Kwasova, the come across a run-down isolated forestry station that will become their home. It is built from logs, and the gaps are filled with moss. They had carried with them as much as they could; now her father Uncle Levi make a round trip to and from the town for much-needed tools and other supplies. Now they can modify the cabin to fit their needs. They clean, discover a small stream with clear water that will serve their need for hygiene and food preparation.
They must arrange their days to avoid detection of their lantern light and smoke from the fire, and of course they must find the wood to feed the fire.
In constant fear, the family members support one another and search for sustenance. They obtain nutrition from the wild vegetation. Sometimes they can scrounge a chicken, yet most of the time they are starving.
Abram risks occasional trips to the shtetele for flour and kerosene. The snow drifts are a big obstacle, and he must avoid leaving tracks in the snow. Networking with others, he establishes a coded way of leaving messages on a tree. It’s a silent, secret language. It helps with a much-needed commodity – news about what’s going on in the world around and beyond them. News of Hitler’s war.
The people in this nomadic entourage of relatives represent a spectrum of age groups, but it is Hanna who holds our attention as she helps take care of her younger siblings and as she muses about building her relationship with Leon Stadnick, who is two years her senior. They pray to make it to their next birthdays. These children are growing up fast and taking on adult tasks and risks.
Fearing that the Germans will eventually find them in the forest, Abram decides to take advantage of news about habitable caves, the gypsum caves of Kwasova, where darkness is even “darker than dark.” Making a safe haven out of the caves is even more difficult and dangerous than living in the forest cabin, but it serves the group’s purposes as a place to survive the Holocaust, which in this case means until the Russians return to Kwasova and drive the Germans out. However, the eventual allied victory does not promote, politically or psychologically, a vision of return to the once familiar home territory. The Slivka family and some of those who hid out with them in the forest and the caves decide to build new identities and lives in the United States.
From beginning to end, the story told is one of a cooperative effort. The family is aided in many ways by some members of their Kwasova community. Among these people are the Cohan twins, Pavel and Jacob, who are always showing up with the news or goods that the Slivka’s need. Both early and late in the story, their dearest neighbor, Alla Petrovich, is of great support and encouragement to the family. She carries the “righteous Christian” role in the story, and her colored eggs seem to make miracles possible. On the other hand, few of the townspeople show any desire for the possible return of their former neighbors.
St. Augustine writer Tara Lynn Masih blends diligent research, blazing imagination, and sophisticated literary technique in this transformational narrative. Marketed as a Young Adult novel, it can engage and educate readers all across the age spectrum.
This novel can be richly explored with the help of an easily available Reader’s and Teachers Guide. Go to: http://taramasih.com/my-real-name-is-hanna-readers-guide.pdf
Here are some of the accolades that this superb novel has received:
Julia Ward Howe Award
Florida Book Award~Gold Medal
Foreword INDIES Award~Gold Medal
Skipping Stones Honor Award
Litsy Award Nominee
A Goodreads’ Best Book of the Month~YA
This review appears in the November 2019 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)