Tag Archives: WWII

Author of Thrilling WWII novel about a cadre of 12 young female spies speaks at Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival

Review by Philip K. Jason, Jewish Book Festival Co-Chair

The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff. Park Row Books. 368 pages. Trade Paperback $16.99.

A dazzling, deliciously complicated novel based on historical events and seasoned by Jenoff’s spectacular imagination, The Lost Girls of Paris is likely to be on book club reading lists for a long time. Once Jenoff discovered the startling fact that a group of female secret agents played a prominent role in aiding resistance to Nazi occupation toward the end of World War Two, she couldn’t help but meet the challenge of bringing this dangerous operation to life.

The narrative moves back and forth between the events of 1944, when the clandestine mission was set in motion, and 1946, when it began to be revealed. It also oscillates between Europe and the United States and is developed, smoothly and boldly, through the rotation of three points of view.

Readers first meet Grace Healey, a recent widow who has settled in New York. She works for Frankie, a lawyer specializing in war refugee issues. She has had a recent, unexpected dalliance with her late husband’s best friend, Mark, which is causing her uncertainty and dismay.

The novel’s action starts with Grace discovering a suitcase in Grand Central Station that contains photos of a dozen young women. She takes the photos, soon after regrets this action, and attempts to return them, but the suitcase is gone.

The scene shifts to London where the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) is located. This special agency, headed by Director Gregory Winslow, is charged with supporting French partisans and creating chaos in the hope of dismantling Nazi plans by spreading misinformation.  The agency, while hoping that sabotage and subversion will win the day, is itself is in a state of chaos, but Eleanor Trigg, a Polish national who also happens to be Jewish, has an idea: the program needs to train a special team of women to help accomplish its ends. She lobbies the director until she is promised an opportunity to move from being a secretary to running the program she has invented: recruiting and training the women and putting a detailed plan into action.

The photos that Grace had found happen to be photos of the twelve women Eleanor had trained, now considered dead.

One of these women is Marie, mother of a five-year-old daughter, who is highly motivated to become a secret agent, worrying only about the necessary separation from her child, Tess. Marie’s language skills make her an attractive recruit. Through Marie’s perspective, Jenoff presents the severity of the training program and the relationships among the chosen dozen. Of course, Eleanor’s perspectives on the young women’s progress overlaps with Marie’s observations. The spy ring women work primarily as couriers and radio operators.

Pam Jenoff / photo by Mindy Schwartz Sorasky

In the final stages of the war, they seem to vanish simultaneously. What happened to them is one of the mysteries that gradually unfolds, in part through Grace’s determination to keep searching for missing details about the photos in the suitcase. She wished to bring what she finds to light in order to honor these women.

One theme that takes hold, dominating much of the novel, is that of possible betrayal. Too many things are going wrong, and they can’t all be attributed to the youth and inexperience of the young women agents. Jenoff teases us with the possibility that someone on the team, perhaps someone at a high level of trust and access, is a double agent.

There is some likelihood, as well, that the German’s have somehow mastered the technology and coding of the radio communication system that is crucial to the group’s task. Indeed, the complication of the system is at once an assurance and a potential detriment.

While the author’s descriptions of administrative and technological matters become an important and fascinating part of the story, her splendidly nuanced portraits of the three key “point of view” characters are what will most fully engage readers, set their imaginations soaring, and tap into their emotions. However, beyond Grace, Eleanor, and Marie, readers will find a large cast of well-drawn and sharply individualized subordinate characters, interacting with each other and with the central trio, who help define the period and places in which the novel is set. Jenoff’s descriptions of the various settings are masterful.

Like her recent New York Times best-selling The Orphan’s Tale, Jenoff’s Lost Girls is strikingly cinematic. Let’s hope her agent can get the studios bidding.

Pam Jenoff is the author of several novels of historical fiction. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a master’s degree in history from Cambridge University. In addition, she received her Juris Doctor from the University of Pennsylvania. Jenoff’s novels are inspired by her experiences working in the Pentagon and also as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.

Historical novel fans can hear Jenoff discuss this unusual thriller – which traces the creation and exploits of the team – at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom on Wednesday, January 8. Also speaking at that event will be Melanie Benjamin, author of Mistress of the Ritz. The books will be available for sale and signing. Find details about the complete Festival series of events, along with an order form, author bios, and contact information, at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

 This review appears in the December 2019 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples)

 

 

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“The Ventriloquists: a Novel,” by E. R. Ramzipoor

  • Park Row Books. 544 pages. Hardcover $26.99

A zany crew pulls a fast one on the Third Reich in this surprising tale based on actual events.

This astonishingly original debut novel draws upon a little-known piece of WWII history and the text of a journalistic hoax. It pays homage to the human spirit that can thrive in the midst of the cruelest oppression.

“The Ventriloquist” begins with, and often returns to, the need for someone to ask and answer questions. The questioner, a woman named Eliza, has heard something about this historical event and, fascinated, has spent 12 years tracking down a witness or participant. Now she has found one, an old lady named Helen.

While author E.R. Ramzipoor often returns to the present-time conversation between Eliza and Helen, Helen’s story (or Eliza’s transcription thereof) reaches into a past in which the hoax was hatched and executed.

We are introduced to the main players: Their names, nicknames, personalities, and experiences are slowly, vividly revealed. For the most part, the narrative is set in occupied Brussels, with some scenes in the small Belgian town of Enghien. The principal character is the main instigator of the grand charade, a journalist with a comic flair named Marc Aubrion (nicknamed “The Jester”). He is an intuitive planner and improviser.

Among the other six key characters are prostitute/smuggler Lada Tarcovich; David Spiegelman, who can write in the voice and persona of others; and Gamin, a girl disguised as a boy, who sets fires, creates confusion, picks pockets, and carries out risky tasks in service to Aubrion’s scheme.

Ramzipoor author photo by Sherry Zaks

They and others form part of the resistance movement that wants to block the omnivorous Reich, as well as Russian expansion. It is late 1943, and resistance forces are stalling until the Allies arrive.

To implement their plan for replacing an edition of the Nazi-propaganda-filled Le Soir with their own send-up version, Faux Soir, the conspirators need paper, ink, typewriters, typesetting machinery, a distribution system, money, hiding places, and storage space.

They must also fool, among others, August Wolff, the regional Nazi paramilitary officer. Working under Himmler, Gruppenführer Wolff is somehow fooled by this motley crew, whose members agree to aid the Axis with their journalistic and other talents. Their skill at deceiving him is another kind of ventriloquism.

The novel explodes with released suspense every few pages as the chapters and their subdivisions shift from character to character, setting to setting, and obstacle to obstacle. Eventually, the critical needs of the Faux Soir scheme are met, but not without close calls and tragic losses. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Ventriloquists

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Teenager’s diary reveals the world of a promising life cut short

Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal, by Renia Spiegel, with Elisabeth Bellak and Sarah Durand. Translated from Polish by Anna Blasiak and Marta Dziurosz. Introduction by Deborah E. Lipstadt. St. Martin’s Press. 336 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

This book, a diary never meant for publication, is not what one would expect from something labeled as a Holocaust diary or journal. In it, young Renia gives very little attention to the immediate effects of Nazi aggression on a Jewish community. Most often, she seems barely aware of it. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that she is only intermittently aware of the establishment of a Ghetto near her grandparents’ home, where she has been living since being separated from her parents. She hears rumors that over time solidify. 

Most of her impressions of ongoing or expected destruction of Jewish communities seem second hand, and perhaps they most often were second hand – until the end.

Readers will wonder why they are not getting the kind of scenes that make up the bulk of first person Holocaust writings.

Deborah E. Lipstadt’s Introduction helps clarify the issue by making the important distinction between  diary and memoir. Diary writers are writing for themselves or for an alter ego. The diary is a companion (“dear diary”). Such journals are about the happenings and concerns of the immediate present.

Memoirs are retrospective. The writer knows the outcome of events initiated in the past and has processed the experiences after the immediate has become the remembered. Memoirs are meant to have an audience and they are written in anticipation of that audience.

Renia spent her time writing her observations, her primary concerns as a teenage girl in the last years of her well-designed secular schooling. Boys and possible relationships are on her mind, as are her female peers in the school. She writes about her moods, whom she likes, and whom she thinks does and does not understand her.

Foremost here is the student who becomes her committed boyfriend, Zygmunt. Her word portraits of this young man are astonishing, as are her records of their meetings and conversations. Parties, dances, and other standard teen activities are on Renia’s mind, as is her sense of how she is maturing physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Like most diary writers, she is talking to herself, addressing the diary directly as if it were a sympathetic friend: a true and loyal confidante.

The diary also records her concern about her mother’s situation, her longing for her mother to visit, and her high esteem for her absent mother. Many entries end with the author’s cry for help from her mother and from God. She needs them both desperately.

Renia’s diary is also, perhaps primarily, a collection of her poems, both recent and brand new. Her writerly aspirations drive her to produce more and more poems.in which she skillfully employs nature imagery to help explore her emotional life. The poems fall short of greatness, especially in that they are so repetitive of one another, but Renia is clearly a promising poet whose work could have grown in depth and sophistication if her life had not been cut short.

Meanwhile, she was trusted to run her school’s student newspaper.

While the last passages that Renia wrote do focus on the conditions of ghetto life, a fuller picture of that period and the family’s life before and after can be found in two additional sections of the book prepared by Renia’s younger sister. They are not journal material but a mix of memoir and research. Titled “Epilogue” and “Elizabeth’s Commentary,” These sections provide much-needed context that is otherwise missing from the journal proper. With these additions, the answers to questions that are not answered in journals or diaries like Renia’s are brought fully to light. It is here that readers receive the conditions of Holocaust life in Poland.

RENIA SPIEGEL was born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1924. She began her diary at the start of 1939, right before the invasion of Poland by the German and Soviet armies. In 1942, she was forced to move to a ghetto, but was smuggled out by her boyfriend and went into hiding with his parents. She was discovered by the Gestapo and murdered on July 30, 1942.

ELIZABETH BELLAK (née Ariana Spiegel), Renia’s sister, born in 1930, was a child actress once called “the Polish Shirley Temple.” In 1942 she and her mother fled to Warsaw, and then to Austria, finally arriving in New York City, where she lives today.

This review appears in the August 2019 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

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“The German Midwife: A Novel,” by Mandy Robotham

  • Avon. 352 pages. Trade paperback $15.99.

This story, narrated from behind Axis lines, captures the enduring strength of women.

Originally published in the U.K. as A Woman of War, the instant bestseller The German Midwife offers astonishing portraits of several women caught up in Hitler’s nightmarish aspirations. The circumstances that threaten the lives of these women (and of countless others) make this story at once an historical novel, a thriller, and a romance.

The narrator, a young nurse and midwife named Anke Hoff, finds herself in a Nazi work camp where she is essentially a prisoner. Though the timeline of the story starts in 1944, italicized flashbacks begin two years earlier, establishing an historical, professional, and familial context for understanding Anke. These sections also illuminate the deteriorating situation for people living under the Reich, whether they be citizens, despised minorities, or resistance sympathizers.

Anke is imprisoned for having provided birthing services for Jewish women despite a Nazi policy to end Jewish reproduction. Inside the camp, she shows leadership, compassion, and disdain for her country’s moral decline.

Robotham

Nonetheless, because she is the most skilled midwife available, she is selected — actually, ordered — to protect the Fuhrer’s child incubating in the womb of Fraulein Eva Braun. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, will make sure that Anke performs her duties properly, as will the staff attending to Hitler’s mountain estate and headquarters. This child, especially if a boy, will insure the future of Hitler’s genetic line and racial vision.

Anke develops a liking for Eva, whom she considers an innocent young woman slavishly enamored of the devil. She develops much more than a liking for a handsome and considerate Nazi officer, Captain Deiter Stenz, who carries out important duties at the headquarters. She is perplexed by how a man she respects can be part of the Nazi mission. Readers will be similarly puzzled.

Suspense — and there is plenty of it — in this carefully developed narrative arises primarily from the ups and downs in Eva’s high-stakes pregnancy, the risks of Anke’s romantic dalliance, and the shadowy references to the progress of the war. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: German Midwife

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“Paris, 7 A.M.: A Novel,” by Liza Wieland

  • Simon & Schuster.  352 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

A riveting re-imagining of poet Elizabeth Bishop’s WWII-era sojourn in France.

The magnificent Paris, 7 A.M. is clearly announced as a work of fiction, which gives it a different kind of accountability than if marketed as a biography. Still, the idiosyncratic narrative is so compelling in its details, characterizations, and settings that one must wonder what is invented and what, if anything, is misrepresented for convenience.

If it were a biography, readers might ask why the real-life poet Elizabeth Bishop seems to be celebrating her European tour following graduation from Vassar a couple of years later than her actual 1934 graduation. 

Perhaps she awaited the availability of her friends so that they could share the experience.

Friendships, acquaintanceships, and — more generally — useful connections are important in defining Elizabeth, and the namedropping in the book is certainly flavorful. One connection is the already established poet Marianne Moore (“Miss Moore”), whose mother is an influence as well for the waif-like Elizabeth, who hardly knows her own parents.

Elizabeth crosses the Atlantic on a German ship with her friend Hallie, and they await other Vassar girls: notably Margarite Miller, the young painter who lost one hand in an accident and who rebuffed Elizabeth’s overtures of love; and risk-taking Louise Crane, who seems the most outgoing of the group and whose mother co-founded New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Eventually, Paris indoctrinates the friends into the offerings of that city and its surroundings.

If there is a word to capture the essence of Elizabeth’s personality, it is reticence. She manages to distract herself from confronting, let alone expressing, her strongest feelings. She douses expectations. She belittles her fledgling avocation as a poet. She numbs herself, again and again, with alcohol.

Loneliness is her constant state, magnificently explored by author Liza Wieland.

Liza Wieland photo by Donna Kain

Yet, as Wieland reveals in a series of well-timed, powerful scenes, Elizabeth has a great need for physical and emotional intimacy with other women — a need that, in the major sections of this book, is often frustrated. She is especially attracted to Sigrid, one of a trio of young German women working in Paris.

Elizabeth admires and is befriended by Clara Longworth de Chambrun, director of the American Library in Paris. The library, a plaything for this enormously wealthy woman, is a networking center for the vacationing and expatriate American community. Clara has connections with other important Americans, and she introduces Elizabeth to the legends: bookstore owner Sylvia Beach and salon hostess/author Natalie Barney. (At Beach’s store, Elizabeth reads her poem “Paris, 7 A.M.,” but the response is far from overwhelming.)

Clara is also Elizabeth’s guide to important places on the visitor’s tour. She treats Elizabeth like a daughter, a replacement for the daughter who had died some years past. There is an attraction as well as a troublesome tension between them. Clara cannot replace the mother Elizabeth never had. . . .

To enjoy the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Paris, 7 A.M.

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“The Wartime Sisters: A Novel,” by Lynda Cohen Loigman

  • St. Martin’s Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

Women bond — and sometimes break apart — in WWII-era New England.

The title of Lynda Cohen Loigman’s new novel, The Wartime Sisters, has two dimensions. The more obvious is the horribly strained relationship between two sisters, Ruth and Millie Kaplan. The other is the wider sisterhood of women who toiled in preparing the U.S. to enter WWII and during the war years that followed. These are women who had factory jobs or positions, clerical and otherwise, that supported the manufacture of weapons.  

The Brooklyn-born Kaplans, first Ruth and, later, Millie (the younger by three years), relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts, to rebuild their lives after shaky, if conventional, beginnings.

They seem to have been the victims of unrealistic expectations and misguided parenting. Ruth’s controlling nature, an echo of their mother’s, leaves Millie feeling demeaned and marginalized. More open and spontaneous, Millie’s attractiveness to people, especially to boys and then men, is a constant threat and humiliation to Ruth.

The narrative is structured to oscillate among three kinds of scenes: Scenes that give an overview of their early years; scenes set in Springfield that reveal the sisters as young adults making their separate ways in the world; and scenes reverting back to more detailed Brooklyn episodes that explore the seeds of conflict and unwise decision-making that continue to have consequences in their new environment.

Loigman

Loigman further complicates the bond between the sisters through the jobs they have in Springfield. Ruth does paperwork, and Millie puts triggers together on the assembly line. From Ruth’s perspective, Millie is trouble — a person who always needs looking after. Ruth had enough of that unwanted responsibility as a girl; she doesn’t want it now as a married woman raising children — especially when her husband is called away from his position at the Armory to dangerous duty in Europe.

But back in Brooklyn, Millie was rather desperate. She was alone in the wake of their parents’ death in an accident, and her ill-fated marriage left her a victim of abuse. Maybe Springfield will supply an answer, whether it be via Ruth or in some other way.

The war between the sisters is carefully orchestrated and is the central action that holds readers glued to the story. However, the portrait of the Springfield Armory community is also a major achievement. Persuasively imagined over a framework of impressive research, the sights, sounds, and patriotic flourishes of its residents during 1942 and 1943 leave readers with a sense of pride.

However, all is not well in this capital of wartime industry. Questions of social and economic justice loom. . . .

To read the entire review at it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Wartime Sisters.

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Author brews an unexpected antidote for a poisoned world

The Taster, by V. S. Alexander. Kensington Books. 336 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

Here is a totally gripping and credible imagining of how a young German woman was affected by the building chaos and cruelty during the late stages of Hitler’s rule. It gains its power through the very special perspective of its main character, who is also the narrator. In 1943, Magda Ritter leaves her parents’ endangered Berlin home seeking employment in a part of Germany less in the path of the war. Though she finds Hitler’s leadership abominable, she takes a position at his Berghof mountain retreat, and she mostly keeps her thoughts to herself. 

Her main job is to be a food taster, one of several protecting the despicable Führer from attempts on his life. Magda learns how to recognize poisons and how to control her fear of dying to save the beast. She makes friends and some enemies. In a place like this, dominated by true believers, its important to play along with the party line and not show your true thoughts or feelings. Indeed, your life depends on living a lie.

Despite her caution, Magda will find some people who share her views and are alarmed at Hitler’s menacing actions which are taking Germany in a nightmarish direction. Most notably, she falls in love with Karl, an SS officer, who belongs to a growing cadre of conspirators against the Reich. At first, they keep their relationship secretive; later, they can be more open about it – especially when Hitler seems to sponsor their relationship and urges them to have many children for the Reich.

Magda is befriended by Eva Braun, Hitler’s lady friend, which is a mixed blessing as the intelligent, attractive, and otherwise perceptive woman is clearly in thrall to the master deceiver. Nonetheless, Eva exhibits generosity and compassion – at least in Mr. Alexander’s version.

Alexander

Hitler stays on the move to make his location unpredictable. He travels among various retreats that serve as temporary headquarters. A large entourage travels with him, and the more and more indispensable Magda is among the group. Each of these places has a distinct personality. . . .

To enjoy the entire review, as it appears in the February 1, 2018 Naples  Florida Weekly as well as in the Charlotte County edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – The Taster

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“A Crime in the Family” by Sacha Batthyany, translated by Anthea Bell

 Da Capo Press. 224 pages. Hardcover $28.00.  

Originally published in German in 2016, this disturbing memoir tells of journalist Sacha Batthyány’s confrontation with the truth and meaning of the heinous crime his family committed during the twilight of WWII.

Batthyany

During a party held by the author’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, her friends and relatives murdered 180 enslaved Jewish laborers.

Though Sacha Batthyány was not the first to write about this horrendous deed, his compulsive research and meditations enormously broaden the scope of information and understanding. He draws from his personal experience as well as diaries, public records, private papers, and interviews conducted with a mixture of determination and anxiety. His journey into the past becomes a journey into his deepest self – his life as a grandchild and child, as a husband and father.

To read the full review, click here:  https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/a-crime-in-the-family

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“Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life,” by Sarah Kaminsky. Trans. Mike Mitchell

DoppelHouse Press. 256 pages. Trade paperback $18.95.

 finalcover-kaminsky-webSarah Kaminsky provides a brilliant biography of an enormously complex, creative, and heroic individual: her father.

Based on Adolfo Kaminsky’s extensive answers to his daughter’s questions, Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life was first published in French in 2009 and was subsequently released in many European languages before reaching English readers.

Adolfo with daughter Sarah.

Adolfo with daughter Sarah. Credit Amit Israeli

Adolfo Kaminsky’s remarkable journey was powered by intelligent longing and a deep, engaging sensitivity to personal destiny, Jewish peoplehood, and freedom. As a teenager, Adolfo (who wore many names in many roles) was fascinated by chemistry and technology. During the Nazi occupation of France, he became an important member of the Resistance movement—a collection of loosely linked organizations attempting to undermine Nazi domination and save lives in one way or another.

One important initiative of the Resistance was its provision of convincing identity documents that would fool authorities, which enabled many would-be victims of the Holocaust to avoid arrest (or worse) with these false papers and even cross the borders of Europe to freedom and safety. Adolfo became an essential player, managing to hide his own identity and activities while mastering the art of forgery. This art included the fabrication of authentic-seeming papers, inks, dyes, seals, solvents, and bindings of all kinds, as well as typography, signature forging, stain removal, and the production of rubber stamps. Adolfo invented solutions to technical problems and also developed skill as a photographer, which quickly proved itself another useful tool in his forgery career—and something he could use to support himself: though often starving, Adolfo took no money for his forgery efforts. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky | Jewish Book Council Review

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“The Upright Heart,” by Julia Ain-Krupa

 New Europe Books. 192 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

 

Stylistic virtuosity, penetrating emotional power, and a post-apocalyptic vision combine to make this highly individualist effort a brilliant literary achievement. Demanding and rewarding, Ain-Krupa’s book is being marketed as a novel, and it certainly has a strong narrative dimension, though it might be better described as a sequence of prose-poems.

The apocalypse, in this case, is the destruction of European Jewry. What’s left to return to in 1945? Why return? What do survivors do with their survival? What are the sources of identity and relationship in a world of death? These are the questions the author explores, questions more felt than articulated.

Julia Ain-Krupa

Julia Ain-Krupa

A Polish Jew named Wolf returns to a shattered homeland from Brooklyn, where he had managed to live during the Holocaust years. He travels by rail with a young man named Wiktor, who seems a ghostly presence. and with a dog he picks up along the way. Wolf gets to his home town, the neighborhood, the cemetery, but what is left seems unreal. There is nothing to attach himself to. Death is everywhere. He belongs in Brooklyn, where it is easier to live with his memories.

We learn of a school that taught mostly Jewish girls, a school that went up in flames, as did the forty-one girls—all named Sarah. We sense their ghosts, and we imagine the ghosts of the children they did not grow up to birth. We ponder on all of those Sarahs, of all the meanings we can connect to the matriarch’s name.

To enjoy the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: The Upright Heart: A Novel by Julia Ain-Krupa | Jewish Book Council Review

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