Although 1.5 million Jews fought in World War I, the involvement of the Sephardic Jewish community often goes unnoticed. Aleksandar Hemon’s book, The World and All That It Holds, highlights the experience of Rafael Pinto of Sarajevo. Hemon, a Bosnian American, interjects his intimate knowledge of Sarajevo and the Sephardic diaspora into the book, giving texture and depth to Pinto’s story.
Before the war, Rafael Pinto attended pharmacy school in Vienna, where he became a sophisticated dandy. He returned home, prepared to take over his father’s pharmacy. Then Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, war broke out, and Pinto was conscripted. The book follows his journey from the onset of World War I in 1914, to the Russian Revolution, to, eventually, Shanghai on the eve of World War II.
The introspective, philosophical Hemon combines his Sarajevan and Jewish identities, using Spanjol (Ladino) and making references to the Torah, including the binding of Isaac and the yetzer hara. In doing so, Hemon makes Pinto a three-dimensional character who is both a Bosnian and a Jew with deep roots in the Sephardic community.
Epic and multi-layered, Hemon’s book is a historical novel, a war story, a ghost tale, and a story about love. With unique characters like Pinto’s partner-and-fellow soldier Osman and his adopted daughter Rahela, the story draws us in and allows us to experience the sights, sounds, and even smells of the places where we find Pinto. That being said, the depiction of war and its brutal impact on individuals and towns is graphic and often uncomfortable to read. Pinto lives in abject poverty: his clothes are tattered, his shoes are held together with string, and he is often starving.
While they’re in the army, Osman protects Pinto from the antisemitic slurs and abuse he endures. But Pinto continues to see Osman as his protector, even after the man has died. Ultimately, the love Pinto feels for the infant Rahela — who may or may not be Osman’s biological daughter — keeps him alive.
Throughout this charming and intimate book, Hemon remains true to his Jewish roots, placing Pinto’s experiences in a Jewish context. It is a compelling journey that offers insight into the life of a Sephardic Jew during the first half of the twentieth century. It is also a celebration of the human spirit and its determination to survive.
Marian Stoltz-Loike, Ph.D. is author, speaker and academician. She is the author of Dual Career Couples: New Perspectives in Counseling and Cross-Cultural Communication.