51 pages 1 hour read

Alice Hoffman

The World That We Knew

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


In The World That We Knew (2019), master storyteller and lyric stylist Alice Hoffman explores the difficult history of Nazi Germany and the struggle of oppressed Jewish people for dignity in the face of the Holocaust’s brutality and inhumanity. A work of historical fiction, the novel chronicles the heroic adventures of three courageous Jewish girls in occupied France. Hoffman freely mingles the hard realities of war with stunning, elegant touches of magic and the supernatural. This fusion in turn sustains a tender and inspirational environment of possibility that celebrates the triumph of love and compassion against the grim tyranny of fascism, violence, religious intolerance, and hate.

Hoffman has written more than 30 novels. Most have been New York Times best sellers, many were selected by the prestigious Oprah’s Book Club, and some were developed into major studio films. The World That We Knew received the 2020 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a $10,000 international humanitarian award named for the historic accord signed in Dayton that brought an end to the bloody Serbian civil war in 1995. The prize—whose previous winners include Margaret Atwood, Richard Powers, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel—has been presented annually since 2006 to recognize works of fiction and nonfiction that assert the power of the word to promote peace and encourage a better understanding of other cultures, peoples, and nations as well as other political and religious views.

The study guide uses the 2019 Simon & Schuster paperback edition.

Plot Summary

In the spring of 1941, Berlin’s Jewish neighborhoods are starting to realize the darkest implications of the Third Reich’s campaign to address the nation’s Jewish “problem.” They watch helplessly as German police arrest hundreds of prominent Jewish residents and dispatch them to government labor camps. After Nazis kill Hanni Kohn’s husband, she knows that she must save her 12-year-old daughter, Lea. Hanni bribes a Nazi administrator to arrange for her daughter to go by train to Paris to live with her distant cousins, the Lévis.

Because Hanni fears sending her daughter alone, she consults her rabbi, a renowned cleric rumored to have magical powers, to fashion a golem—in Jewish folk tradition a life-sized doll made of clay—to escort and protect Lea. The rabbi refuses to help. His daughter, 17-year-old Ettie, agrees to create the golem, whom the two girls name Ava. Fearful of creating a monster, Hanni tells Lea that once the war is over and she is safe, she must destroy the golem. Lea, Ettie, and Ava leave Berlin, accompanied by Ettie’s sister Marta. However, during their journey to Paris, Nazis board their train, looking for Jewish refugees. They kill Marta, and Ettie is separated from Lea and Ava, disappearing into the security of the woods.

When Lea and Ava arrive in occupied Paris, their cousins, the Lévis, a wealthy and established family, are at first suspicious of the two strangers. Lea is taken with a handsome and soft-spoken cousin, an aspiring artist named Julien, who is equally smitten with Lea. Ava’s magical origins allow her to see the future as well as a world of angels, both benevolent and malevolent, and even communicate with birds. When a beautiful heron alerts Ava that the Nazis are preparing to round up Jewish residents for deportation, Ava acts to protect her young charge. Reluctantly, Lea says goodbye to Julien, and she and Ava head to the safety of a Catholic convent in the Rhône Valley south of Paris. The nuns there run an underground network, leading Jewish children across the Alps to safety in neutral Switzerland.

Lea misses Julien, but Ava shows her how to use her heron to send messages to him. When the Nazis move on the remaining Jewish residents of Paris, Julien flees the city. He takes refuge at a farm outside Paris, where he uses the heron to exchange tender messages with Lea until the Nazis raid the farm. Julien himself becomes a refugee. Even as Ava and Lea hide, Ava begins to realize that, despite her origins, she is beginning to have genuine emotions for Lea, protective and maternal. In addition, the world around her stuns her with its colors, its energy, its beauty.

Meanwhile, Ettie is determined to avenge her sister’s brutal killing and joins the underground French Resistance movement. Its ragtag guerilla fighters work to thwart the Nazi occupation of France through dangerous paramilitary attacks. Ettie’s mentor is the compassionate and idealistic Dr. Girard, an older man who is a widower. He falls in love with her. While she’s with the Resistance insurgency, Ettie meets Julien’s older brother, the idealistic and reckless Victor. An explosives expert, Victor is known as much for his commitment to the cause as for his crazy risk taking. Through the agency of the Catholic underground network, Julien and Victor reunite. When Nazis raid the convent and its school in the spring of 1943, Ettie and Victor volunteer for a dangerous mission to kill the Gestapo captain who led the raid. Before she leaves for the mission, Ettie makes love with Dr. Girard. In the attack on the Gestapo officer, Ettie dies, and the Gestapo arrest Victor. They send him to Auschwitz, where he’s gassed.

Lea, now 16, still communicates with Julien through the heron, who dutifully carries their messages in a tube tied to his leg. Julien is in hiding on a farm with the family of one of the servants from their house in Paris, the maid, Marianne, who is herself fiercely committed to the Resistance. Ava is increasingly conflicted, knowing that when Lea no longer needs her protection, she’ll be obligated to destroy her. When Lea and Julien finally reunite, they tell Ava that they plan to emigrate to New York now that the war is nearing an end. Ava, however, sees that Lea’s life is in danger when a swarm of bees descends on her. She maneuvers to outfox the Angel of Death, saving Lea’s life. In turn, Lea saves Ava when a Nazi soldier threatens her.

Before leaving with Julien to begin their new life, Lea decides that she cannot bring herself to destroy Ava. In the end, that act of love gifts Ava with her humanity. 

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