They Went Left by Monica Hesse


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First half with the audiobook on my commute to the International School of Amsterdam.

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Second half with our print library book so that I could read as fast as possible to find out what happened. When I reached a certain page, reading before bed, my gasp was so loud that my husband woke up and asked, “Are you OK?”

They Went Left by Monica Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last time I saw Abek…
“Zofia!” he cried. “Where are they taking you?”
“I don’t know,” I mouthed. I could already feel tears pooling in my eyes but bit them back so as not to waste time. I reached for his hand through the fence, his little-boy fist that I could still cup my palm around.
“Abek to Zofia, ” I told him.
“A to Z,” he said back.
“When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. And we will be whole, and everything will be find. I promise I will find you.”

Outstanding, suspense-filled historical fiction set in August 1945 right after the liberation of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Poland and centered on 18 year-old Zofia Lederman’s quest to find her little brother, Abek, who she hasn’t seen in years but who she is committed to finding no matter the cost. Zofia’s story focuses on the aftermath of leaving the camps, how teenagers and the rare children who survived the Holocaust fought against incredible odds to keep hope alive and find their families and friends, how liberation and survival did nothing to stem the ongoing indignities and prejudices they faced when they tried to return to their cities, neighborhoods, and homes.

Each step in Zofia’s journey is a mental and physical battle. She has experienced such tortuous brutality during the war that her mind has rebelled and locked away her most painful memories to protect her sanity. Each time she is overtaken and confronted by a hopeful dream or horrific memory, she moves closer to remembering the last time she saw Abek and perhaps figuring out where he could be:

“This is the version I have dreams of sometimes. Clear as day, sharp as a needle, so I can see every hair on his head. And when I dream this scene, Abek nods at my promise. Like he trusts me, like he believes me. For a moment, I feel at peace.”

Zofia’s post-war world is excruciating and fraught with ghosts of the dead and terrors held at bay by sheer force of will. Each person she meets, from the handsome Russian soldier who rescues her from the barracks at the camp and who wants more from her than she is willing to give to the nuns running an orphanage for Jewish refugee children, presents a huge risk forcing her to decide whether to trust her fragile grip on reality and believe that she is on the right path to finding Abek:

“But then something changes. Then dream-Abek’s face twists, and his words come out pained: “Something happened,” this Abek says. “But we don’t have to talk about it yet.”

Paced like a thriller, They Went Left, which received a Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor for YA from the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) in 2021, is highly recommended for mature readers grades 10 and up. I listened to the first half of the novel and my commute flew by! By the weekend, I knew I would need to have the print version so I could read the second half as quickly as I could, tense with hope against hope myself to the very end.

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