Tag Archives: survival

Inspired by actual events, this novel for all readers should become a young adult classic

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.

Tara Lynn Masih

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). It was reprinted in several editions of Florida Weekly on November 20 and 21, 2019. Here is a link: Florida Weekly – My Real Name is Hanna

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BOOK BEAT 50 – Nancy R. Koerner

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   July 25-31, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

You might have known her as Nancy R. Holtzman, part of the musical ensemble that played Southwest Florida venues as Celestial Harp & Flute since moving here in 2001, when the flute half of the team needed to attend to aging parents. Now, Nancy R. Koerner is making her reputation as the author of the life-based novel called “Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise.” The novel has three centers of interest: the effect of the 1970s counterculture on an adventurous young woman, the natural marvels of a relatively unknown Central American country, and the psychology of abuse. 

Koerner wrote the story from 1991 through 1995, then found a trade publisher who went out of business before bringing out the book. For a long time she shelved the project. Life, including a major accident, got in the way. But some ten years after putting it aside she revived it, further revised it, and has now made it available through lulu.com and also through standard and online booksellers.

“Belize Survivor” follows the adventures of an idealist young woman, Alexis Dubois, who is far less worldly and far less informed that she believes. Influenced by the 1960s and 1970s interest in communal living, back-to-nature lifestyles, and other anti-establishment fashions, Alexis travels the counterculture capitals and by-ways, slowly maturing without losing her sense of adventure and her desire for personal freedom and fulfillment. The first third of the novel is a wonderfully evocative tour of the places and passions of the flower children, including Key West and Northern California.  

Alexis goes to Belize seeking Eden, a utopian lifestyle, but she finds instead the darker side of Paradise: earthquake, flood, fire, hurricane – and most of all the darker side of human nature embodied in a brutal husband, Max Lord. The seeds of this character’s decline into a sadistic abuser are not clearly perceived by Alexis, who seems to be avoiding facing up to what is obvious to the reader. But once she and her husband are in Belize, where Alexis is isolated and helpless, things begin to unravel.

When Koerner (and her surrogate, Alexis) first went to Belize some thirty years ago, it was largely unknown and unspoiled. Much of that primitive, unspoiled beauty is captured in Koerner’s evocative descriptions. Indeed, evocation of place through vivid imagery and cultural atmosphere is one of the book’s major strengths. Another is the careful building and maintaining of suspense. There is always a reason to keep turning the pages.

In writing the novel, Koerner tapped into the submerged emotions of her own experiences as an abuse victim. She came to realize that she had not fully addressed the issues, which she is now doing under professional guidance.

The teller of an intimate story, Koerner felt that there were aspects of it that she could not render effectively in the first person. It needed the distancing and relative objectivity of the third person perspective. The third person approach also enabled her to better render the secondary characters.

One of the problems with the choice is that Koerner succumbs to the temptation to go too far with one secondary character. Koerner’s extended treatment of Max Lord’s South African upbringing, interesting in itself, takes readers away from Alexis too long and makes too obvious the psychological seeds of later complications. Such a digression would be unlikely to happen in a first person narration. But this is a minor quibble.

As one might imagine, Alexis wishes to escape the tortures of abuse. Complicating her decision is the growing shadow of self-doubt and her sense of responsibility to the two children she and Max have brought into the world. How Alexis handles these issues, which I won’t give away, lends compelling complication to the latter third of the novel.

About the book as the source for further projects, Koerner writes, “a New York producer has picked me up, and we’re already engaged in doing a documentary. The purpose of this film is to 1) promote a great vicarious adventure to the aging-flower-children-baby-boomers, 2) to expose and therefore further the righteous cause against domestic violence, both national and international, and 3) garner interest with big investors to launch a full-length Hollywood film or a TV series based on the book.”

Because the twenty-year span of the story contains many, many short episodes, the producer sees the possibility of a long-term, ongoing series like “Lost.”

Whatever its future in other media, “Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise” is a remarkable first novel both in style and substance.

 Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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