“Once We Were Home,” the second novel by National Jewish Book Award finalist Jennifer Rosner, appears at first alluringly simple. In straightforward prose adorned with a poetic sensibility, Rosner intertwines three narratives about displaced children ping-ponging across Europe and Israel during World War II and its aftermath.
The narratives, seemingly distinct, will gently converge. And two ancillary characters, a violin prodigy and her mother, will resurface from Rosner’s 2020 debut novel, “The Yellow Bird Sings.”
But Rosner’s project in “Once We Were Home” transcends even her abundant storytelling gifts. Over time, Rosner’s characters find themselves at the vortex of complex legal, moral, and philosophical questions.
The title is deliberately ambiguous, with “once” pointing to either a distant past or an idealized future. With the recurrent motif of nesting dolls as a metaphor, Rosner asks: What does it mean to belong someplace, or with someone? What makes a family? What defines a home? How should we weight biology, memory, and nurture, not to mention gratitude and obligation? And how do these countervailing forces shape personal identity?
The poignant plot and the overwhelmingly sympathetic characters of “Once We Were Home” — constrained by circumstances, struggling for agency — are fictional, and the novel’s concerns universal. But the issues Rosner raises are rooted specifically in the real-life upheavals of World War II and the Holocaust.
The disruptions precipitated by these linked catastrophes included the displacement of millions of children across Europe. Most obviously imperiled were Jewish children, often confined in increasingly grim East European ghettos, where they faced starvation and deportation to death camps. Desperate parents sometimes made the horrific sacrifice of sending their children away to places or people they believed offered safety.
Not only Jewish children were at risk, nor was murderous violence the only threat. The SS Lebensborn program involved kidnapping “Aryan”-appearing children in Poland and elsewhere and giving them to German families.
After the war, surviving relatives searched for missing children. But removing them from their new homes could be wrenching — yet another displacement. Younger children often retained little memory of their original families, and their rescuers developed attachments, too.
One of Rosner’s narratives involves just such a case. Three-year-old Daniel and 7-year-old Mira have been spirited out of a Jewish ghetto in Poland and consigned for safekeeping to a Polish farm couple. The Dabrowskis bravely lie and stare down nosy neighbors to protect their charges.
A Jewish Zionist group (knowing the parents have perished) kidnaps the siblings at war’s end and sends them to a kibbutz in Palestine. The girl, now Ana, is more or less willing; the boy, Oskar, with no memory of his Jewish roots, is heartbroken to leave the only parents he really knows. He will find relief mainly in wood-carving and playing chess. “He savors having options, the steps that can move him from where he is to where he wants to be,” Rosner writes.
A second narrative describes the fate of a Jewish boy, Roger, raised Catholic in a French convent near Marseille. A writer and humorist, even at a young age he is an incipient philosopher, questioning everything. When his paternal aunt tries to reclaim him, his rescuers refuse to relinquish him, fearing, they say, for his soul.
In the company of a monk, Roger treks to Spain, presumably beyond the reach of justice. His companion, Brother Jacques, tries to explain the situation, but the boy remains conflicted and confused. “It is midday, yet the moon is visible,” Rosner writes. “Roger doesn’t know where one thing ends and another begins.”
Eventually, the Catholic Church caves to legal pressure, and Roger ends up in Israel with his family. He is loved, but still wary; Holocaust traumas aren’t easily resolved.
Finally, Rosner introduces us, in 1968, to the mysterious case of Renata, raised in England by a German mother. An Oxford-educated archeologist, she is in Israel on a dig. On her deathbed, her mother has expressed regrets about unspecified transgressions. “Her mum didn’t believe in revisiting history,” we are told. Renata’s profession provides a symbolic counterargument: the ceramic sherds she unearths “may even fit, edge to edge, like puzzle pieces, or like words placed side by side to tell a story.”
Rosner’s juxtaposed narratives, moving fluidly through the decades, seem disconnected. But even before her characters intersect, familiar objects — a dreidel, nesting dolls, exquisitely carved chess pieces — keep popping up in prefatory monologues and the stories themselves.
Writing primarily in the third person, Rosner immerses readers in her characters’ efforts to understand their origins, their emotions, and their religious beliefs. She channels their voices as they struggle to find a stable identity. “I still don’t know who I am,” Roger says, echoing a common refrain.
Stopping just short of sentimentalism, Rosner suggests that one way to reach a happier, more settled future is to confront the past. Eva, a woman with a deep grief of her own, assures Ana that, even amid loss and uncertainty, “the love doesn’t stop.” Roger, who becomes a philosophy professor, enjoys a similar insight. He realizes that “even when the sun’s brightness obscures them, the stars are always there.”
ONCE WE WERE HOME
By Jennifer Rosner
Flatiron Books, 288 pages, $26.99
Julia M. Klein is the Forward’s contributing book critic.