In 1941, a family of Jews live comfortably in northern Ukraine town of Kwasova, integrated with neighbors of other faiths. The eldest girl, Hanna Slivka, has just turned fourteen when the Germans invaded then Soviet-occupied Ukraine, determined to rid the shtetl of Jews. She, together with her family and other Jewish friends, were forced into hiding, first in the forests that surround their town, and second in underground caves believed to harbor evil spirits.
Inspired by real events that occured during the Holocaust, the story in My Real Name is Hanna is a retelling of Hanna’s childhood to her daughter. Being a recollection of memories of one of the most terrifying real-life events in history, it has a poignant tone that imbue the narrative with emotion and tension. The narrative is further interspersed with both Ukrainian and Jewish folklore – the making of Easter pysanky eggs, using wax to scry for one’s future husband, and the giving of birthday gifts to ward off evil for the year – making the story even more personal and grounded in that location and within their community.
In her debut novel, Tara Lynn Masih chronicles the intensifying hardships of Hanna’s family in particular and the Jews in general. It starts with restrictions on the food they can buy, the businesses they can engage in, until later, Jews are seized and made to travel north to the work camps. Some Jewish Romaninan prisoners, as revealed by the family’s informants, were made to cross a deep river and were either drowned or shot in the back when they made it to the banks, all while classical music is being played on the Gestapo’s gramophone.
Masih’s novel couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time: today, there are voices spewing words of hate about other groups of people, and the appeal to intellect and rationality has given way to emotional outbursts over real and imagined slights. The author explains that given her young adult audience, she did leave out “some of the more nightmarish events.” But what she did leave in are heart-wrenching enough.
Even more heart-wrenching are the actions of the people who helped Hanna’s family despite great personal danger: from the neighbor who gives them crosses to place on their door to hide their Jewishness during a raid, to the people who served as their contact to the outside world while they were in hiding.
As the novel ends, the family survived but to get their visas and be on their way to freedom in a new country, they needed to change their names. This is why the retelling to her daughter begins and ends with her real name, and with it, the acceptance of what has happened before and since.
Masih’s story is brilliantly told with a relatable and sympathetic narrator. The events described are grounded in history, and all the more horrifying because of it.
My Real Name is Hanna, published by Mandel Vilar Press, will be released on September 15, 2018. It is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
Thanks to NetGalley and Mandel Vilar Press for the advanced read.
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