Once We Were Home

  • Review
By – March 6, 2023

Jen­nifer Rosner’s new nov­el, Once We Were Home, is a thought-pro­vok­ing, mov­ing tale about sev­er­al chil­dren whose Jew­ish par­ents have giv­en them to Chris­tians in des­per­ate attempts to save them from the Nazis. The plot tells the sto­ries of Roger, a young French Jew­ish boy hid­den away in a con­vent; Oskar and Ana, sib­lings whose moth­er arranges for them to be smug­gled out of a Pol­ish ghet­to and hid­den with a Chris­t­ian cou­ple; and Rena­ta, an archae­ol­o­gy stu­dent whose mys­te­ri­ous back­ground grows clear­er over the course of the nov­el. Span­ning sev­er­al decades, the book’s scope is ambi­tious. Ros­ner sets Renata’s nar­ra­tive in late 1960s Israel while also attend­ing to Roger’s, Oskar’s, and Ana’s in war-torn Europe. She con­tin­ues to fol­low these three war orphans until their time­lines, and plot­lines, inter­sect with Renata’s.

The char­ac­ters are all com­pelling and well-writ­ten, and their indi­vid­ual ups and downs are sure to cap­ti­vate read­ers; but the novel’s main ques­tions sur­round issues of iden­ti­ty, par­ent­hood, belong­ing, and moral­i­ty — issues that, for the pro­tag­o­nists, are com­pli­cat­ed by the way their lives were spared. What will hap­pen to the kids whose par­ents did not sur­vive? Or whose adop­tive par­ents don’t want to relin­quish them back to their bio­log­i­cal fam­i­lies after the war? Roger, for exam­ple, is bap­tized and hid­den away by the Catholic church in a direct attempt to hide him from his sur­viv­ing family.

Based on his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­e­na, Once We Were Home pro­vides insight into the real­i­ty of post­war life for Euro­pean Jews. The bulk of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture tends to focus on Nazism and con­cen­tra­tion camp expe­ri­ences, and under­stand­ably so. Rosner’s nov­el, how­ev­er, push­es the bound­aries of such lit­er­a­ture, explor­ing some of the longer-term con­se­quences that sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies faced. The con­cen­tra­tion camps may have been lib­er­at­ed, she seems to say, but those lucky enough to sur­vive faced unique chal­lenges that did not sim­ply dis­ap­pear when the war was over.

Discussion Questions