This is an emotional tale of three friends who find themselves in very different situations when World War Two breaks out in Europe. With a harrowing narrative centred around the Holocaust, ‘When the World Was Ours’ gives us a small insight into how the war tore families, friendships and countries apart.
Max, Leo and Elsa are inseparable and spend their lives together and are the best of friends. But when the Jews begin to be persecuted in Berlin, their lives begin to take very different paths. For Max, who’s father is a Nazi soldier his life begins to be injected with new values he never dreamed he would hold. For Elsa, who is Jewish, her family decide to move to Prague to escape the regime they know will overcast their lives. Finally, for Leo, who is also Jewish, he finds safe passage to England along with his mother.
Each of them is affected differently by the changing world around them and we follow each of their stories through the book.
I have always been interested in learning more about the World Wars, and have always felt it is important in particular to educate myself about the Holocaust. In October 2019, I visited Auchwitz. Everyone tells you before you go how harrowing it is, but you can’t quite understand how emotional it would be until you get there. Since then, I’ve felt books like ‘When the World Was Ours’ have even more impact, as I have seen the conditions and location they’re set in, or something very similar.
Liz Kessler has written a book which is sensitive to the demographic without hiding any of the details of war and concentration camps. This is certainly an emotive story which will get the reader thinking about justice, equality and diversity, something we can all agree is still relevant today. I thought it was especially powerful to have three stories of three children whose lives are intertwined from the very beginning, but each have a very different experience.
I was lucky enough to have a Q & A with Liz, where she tells us more about the inspiration for the book as well as more insight into the main themes and messages we can take away from the story.
- I know you’ve spoken a lot about the inspiration story for this book, but what made you choose now as the right time for writing it?
The story has always been in the background of my mind and for about ten years has been simmering as an idea for a book. A couple of years ago I decided to take time out of regular contracts and write what was in my heart without even thinking about whether anyone would want to publish it. My dad wasn’t getting any younger – he’s ninety now – and I wanted him to be around at least for the process of writing the book. So I knew the time had come to write it. And I’m so happy and proud that I get to share it with him now.
- Which characters perspective did you find it most difficult to write from?
In different ways, they were all challenging. With Leo’s story, I had to be careful to make sure that I achieved the right balance of being true to my dad’s story whilst also being really clear that this was a fictional account of a made up character’s life. Elsa was so hard to write because writing her story broke my heart. But Max was probably the hardest to write as it meant having to explore some dark aspects of a character’s personality and to tread the very difficult line of showing that he was partly a victim of his upbringing but show that he was also culpable in the most horrific regime.
- When researching this book, what was the most important thing you discovered?
On a very personal level, I think the most important thing for me was the feeling of connectedness to my heritage. Being Jewish has always been an important part of who I am but I’m not religious and in many ways I don’t feel part of mainstream Jewish life. The research trip to Central Europe with my wife, where we visited five countries, four concentration camps and museums and synagogues in several cities, made me feel so closely connected to my history and ignited a deeper sense of my own Jewishness.
- Why are books like ‘When the World Was Ours’ important for children and teens to read?
For me, it’s important to share books like mine, not just to keep alive the memory of the terrible things that happened in the Holocaust but also to use that as a way to look at things that are still happening in the world today. I’d love to think that young people will read my book and ask themselves questions about how they might have acted in those situations and also how it might affect how they respond to the world that they live in today.
5. Having written such an emotive story, did you find yourself having emotions you didn’t expect when writing it?
I knew that it would be tough to write this book – and it was. I knew that the research would affect me deeply – and it really did. So I don’t think I had emotions that I wasn’t expecting, but it was certainly the most emotional, intense and difficult experience I’ve had as a writer. But I think it was important for me to go as deeply as I did into the research in order to help make the book as truthful and authentic as I possibly could.
6. There are happier moments for the children in the book, where they find a light in the darkness. Why do you think it’s important for this to be featured?
I am someone who always wants to see the positive in a situation or in a person. And as a writer, connection and kindness and hope have always been at the heart of my books. I think with this book in particular it was more important than ever to have kindness and hope at its heart. I didn’t want young people to feel broken and traumatised at the end of it – like I did after visiting Auschwitz. I wanted them to have a sense that even in the darkest of times, we can find kindness, connection and hope.
7. Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you think readers can take from your book?
To be honest, I wouldn’t really like to think of my book as advising anyone on anything. I’d like to think of it as raising questions for readers – about themselves and about the world around them. If I had to say anything it would probably be simply to be aware that a small moment of kindness could potentially have the most profound effect on someone else’s life.
Thank you very much Liz for answering these questions in such detail. I hope you all found her answers as interesting as I did.
If you like the sound of this book, you can buy it here: https://amzn.to/2MfiyyE
📚 Book gifted by publisher.