Leo, Elsa and Max have been best friends for years. Since the day they met they’ve been a team of three. But then the Nazis come, and their lives, once so tightly woven together, take very different paths.
LEO must rely on the kindness of strangers to escape the rising threat to the Jewish people.
ELSA, like Leo, is hated for simply being who she is. To be safe, she must run.
MAX suddenly finds that he is the danger his friends are trying to desperately escape as his father rise through the Nazi ranks.
Inspired by a true story, When The World Was Ours is as life-affirming as it is heartbreaking, and shows how the bonds of love, family and friendship allow glimmer of hope to flourish, even in the most hopeless of times
This novel is beautifully constructed and forces us to experience the events of WW2 in Europe, but through the eyes of three children – Leo, Max and Elsa. Written in alternate chapters, the voice of each child comes through loud and clear. From the fun, adventure of Leo’s birthday at the fairground in the first chapter, to the whispers and silences at home and the friendship broken apart by propaganda, hate and fear. There’s such an innocence about these three children, sharing their hopes and dreams for the future. It’s so hard to read when we, as readers, know what’s coming. The cracks are showing, for the adults in Vienna. For these friends it’s still tag in the park and through them we see the beauty of Vienna, the cherry blossom of spring and the view over the city from the top of a Ferris wheel.
In Elsa and Leo’s narratives we can see the confusion when their parents start acting differently and uncertainty creeps into their existence. The author paces the rise in tension so well, from those first whispers to open acts of violence. The children are at the age where their parents are solid, safe and stable. Everyone has a moment when they realise their parents aren’t infallible, they’re just human beings who feel fear and make mistakes. In the aftermath of the Anschluss, neighbours have become potential enemies and with Elsa’s family fleeing to Czechoslovakia, Max and Leo bewilderingly find themselves on opposite sides. I felt so deeply for Max, watching an innocent child groomed into hating others was really hard to take. My late husband was Polish and I have listened to their incredible stories of escape, loss, and dislocation from their home land. There’s a lot in Leo and Elsa’s stories that’s shocking and distressing, but familiar.
I remember being confronted with the reality of a child living within the Nazi regime in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but he was kept largely separate from the truth of his father’s ‘work’. Here, Max has an authoritarian father anyway, constantly telling him to be a man, to be strong and definitely not to cry. Now his Dad tells him not to play with his best friends, tells him Jews are dirty and sly and even worse, forces him to repeat these things he doesn’t believe. It’s totally heartbreaking to read, especially when Max’s father’s rise in the party puts him in direct confrontation with Leo’s father, something he’s wanted for a long time. We can see how this is a manufactured rift has been created. It takes strong individuals to stand against the tide, something Leo realises when Jewish children are separated from the rest of the school. Max instinctively steps away from Leo, then has to apologise. The author depicts the innocence of these friendships, torn apart by hatred and adult choices. They are exactly the same people they were yesterday, how can they see each other as different?
Yet amongst all this hate, there are these little moments of courage and hope. Leo gains confidence by becoming the man of the house and helping to get him and his mother out of danger. Elsa meets a new friend at school in Czechoslovakia, their friendship is different because they’re both girls. There’s more talking than playing, but she’s found a little bit of happiness within the maelstrom surrounding them. Max is finding confidence and structure as a member of the Hitler Youth. He talks about being a cog in the wheel of this huge organisation and finds pride as part of this young army, not party to the bigger picture and truth of their purpose. These young characters are a brilliant way in for younger readers to connect with history and the long term lessons of the Holocaust. I can see it being an important text for schools in the future. That’s not to say it’s only for young readers – adults can also take a lot from this book. Often, young people are the best way to enlighten and teach adults and these three characters will get under your skin and make you think about their reality and part in this history. After all, the most frightening thing is that we don’t learn from books like this. As adults we should think about Elsa’s answer to the question we often ask about the Holocaust – how did this get that far? How did this happen? is that for these children, the bewildering changes they’re experiencing today could become the norm.
‘How rapidly something unthinkable can become commonplace. How easily we let the inconceivable become a new normal. How quickly we learn to stop questioning these things…’
Meet The Author
In a note at the beginning of the novel Liz Kessler writes about her father’s flight from Czechoslovakia when he was eight years old. Their chance of escape came from a British couple they’d happened to meet several years before. Just like the first chapter, when Leo and his friends are taken to the fairground for his birthday, and he literally bumps into a couple in the carriage of the Ferris wheel. Kessler has used her fathers story as the basis for this novel. She explains that it’s not just about honouring her heritage, but about helping young people come to informed decisions about social justice for the future.
She was first published in 2003 and her debut was the first in a series of books for 8-12 year olds about a half- mermaid girl. She has sold over five million copies worldwide and been published in 25 countries. She has written 23 books in total for both young adults and early readers. Liz lives in Cornwall where her hobbies and her inspiration come from the sea.