Published by Mandel Vilar Press on September 15, 2018
Genres: historical fiction
Format: ARC, eBook
Inspired by real Holocaust events, this poignant debut novel is a powerful coming-of-age story that will resonate with fans of The Book Thief and Between Shades of Gray.
Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Until the German occupation, Hanna spent her time exploring Kwasova with her younger siblings, admiring the drawings of the handsome Leon Stadnick, and helping her neighbor dye decorative pysanky eggs. But now she, Leon, and their families are forced to flee and hide in the forest outside their shtetele—and then in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows, rumored to harbor evil spirits. Underground, they battle sickness and starvation, while the hunt continues above. When Hanna’s father disappears, suddenly it’s up to Hanna to find him—and to find a way to keep the rest of her family, and friends, alive.
Sparse, resonant, and lyrical, weaving in tales of Jewish and Ukrainian folklore, My Real Name Is Hanna celebrates the sustaining bonds of family, the beauty of a helping hand, and the tenacity of the human spirit.
My Real Name Is Hanna is a story about a small Ukrainian Jewish community’s harrowing experience during the Holocaust, inspired and informed by real life events. For that reason (among several others), I’ve had to sit with this novel for a bit before writing a review on it. As the author, Tara Lynn Masih, says in the historical note section at the end of the novel, “little did I know I would be submitting the final manuscript during a time in which the KKK and White Nationalists would march again…I dream of a day when we will no longer need Holocaust stories to remind us to be kind to each other, and to be watchful of those who aren’t.”
MRNIH is thus a tale irrevocably tied into themes of anti-Semitism and to the utterly horrible depths to which humanity can, has, and potentially will again sink. It’s a heavy read, especially when one considers the context of the story and the fact that actual Ukrainian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust numbered only five percent of their former population.
The story is told through the frame of an older Hanna narrating the events of the novel to her daughter. It opens with haunting lines:
I will say my real name to you for the first time. Hanna Slivka. Don’t be scared. I am still your mother.
And from there, the story wheels back to focus on the Slivka family’s experiences in their small Ukrainian shtetele prior to the German occupation, beginning in May of 1941.
The early portion of the novel establishes the tensions between Christian and Jewish members of her village, especially in an early scene where young boys pelt rocks at Hanna and her siblings while shouting epithets at them. This section is also idyllic, however: the bucolic landscape of Hanna’s home, and especially the beautiful valley flowers, are described in rich and nostalgic detail. Daily life and its rituals are depicted lovingly and with warmth; this all plays across the backdrop of Ukraine constantly being a contested territory, changing from one nation’s hands to another:
We are at different periods in history Ukrainian citizens, then Austrian, then Polish…a week after Rosh Hashanah, the Red Army marches into Kwasova from the east, singing folk songs and speaking Ukrainian, and holding off the German advance…and we are suddenly Russian Ukrainians, forced to pledge our allegiance to Comrade Josef Stalin.
The relatively slower start to the novel allows time for the picture of life in Kwasova, and especially life there for Hanna, to come into vivid relief. Her touching relationship with her Christian peasant neighbor, Mrs. Petrovich, is firmly established, as well as her hummingbird-timid crush on Leon, her neighbor. Hanna was by far the most well-developed character of the novel (which makes sense, considering her retelling of the events to her daughter is the framing device for the novel), but the Slivka family in general was depicted with care.
What I found to be depicted well in this novel is how the slide into fascism can start slow, then gradually pick up pace, building momentum into a landslide of horrific proportions. How neighbors turn against former neighbors, all for the sake of a sack of grain or the promise of protection. How seemingly mundane indignities like being forced to the back of a ration line can progress into firing squads and night raids.
The novel eventually sees the German occupation arrive, and with it, the Slivka family and some of their neighbors must go into hiding. The first flee to the woods, aided by a non-compliant woodsman, then they are eventually forced to take grueling refuge in a network of caves. The author must have done meticulous research to have depicted all of it so vividly; I could tell that a lot of care and time went into being as truthful as possible in the forest and cave portions of the story.
This novel is focused on the micro-level scale of the Holocaust: how one Jewish family fared during it, and how the experience shaped them. It zooms into the minute details of life, the indignities inflicted, and the small joys snatched out of darkness. In all of this, it excels. I don’t think it was perfect – a couple of the characters felt less fully-fleshed-out than I’d like – but Masih wrote a deeply affecting and resonant novel. Well worth a read.
(I do want to mention, however, that my ebook copy from NetGalley had some major and reading-inhibitive errors in its formatting. I hope that the publisher of this novel is able to rectify that issue for any future e-ARCs they distribute.)