In August 1942 Zofia Lederman and her family, who are among the remaining Jews in the Polish town of Sosnowiec, report to the local soccer stadium, where they are sorted into two groups, one headed for death camps and the other for labor camps. In an effort to keep him safe, eighteen-year-old Sofia tells her nine-year-old brother to lie and say he is older so that he will be sent to a labor camp with her instead of to the camp where his mother, father, and aunt face certain death. Because Zofia’s father had owned a renowned and prosperous clothing factory in their hometown, Zofia acquired skills as a seamstress that pretty much guarantee her a chance of survival working in a German factory. Her brother’s youth and ability to speak three languages, she hopes, will help him find work as a commandant’s assistant.
Three years later, the war has ended, her family is all gone (except for her brother, hopefully), and Zofia finds herself being discharged from the hospital after a lengthy stay. Her mind is confused and unreliable, but waiting for her release is Dima, a Russian soldier who found her in the Gross-Rosen camp and who patiently guides her safely to her family’s old apartment, provides her with food and money, and tries to persuade her to stay there long enough to make sensible plans for finding her brother. Instead she steals money from her soldier friend and slips away in the night to begin retracing the journey taken by her family, ending up finally in Allied-Occupied Germany at Foehrenwald, a camp for displaced persons. There people help in her search, she makes friends, finds romance at the camp and eventually finds her brother. Or does she?
The author’s narrative is fascinating, continuously revisiting Zofia’s memories until the reader, like Zofia, is not sure what is true and what is not. Hesse’s treatment of a survivor’s mental instability after enduring the horrors of a concentration camp is something new in YA fiction. There are, of course, instances of violence and abuse, some sexual scenes, but minimal profanity. Themes of forgiveness, acceptance of one’s own failings as well as those of others, understanding that history may change but people in general do not, knowing when to acknowledge what is realistic and possible–all these resonate throughout the book, making it useful for discussion and purchase.