Author’s grand­moth­er Frie­da, just after World War II

All pho­tographs cour­tesy of the author

Though The Blood Years is not the first nov­el I’ve pub­lished, it is the first work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion I’ve under­tak­en. It’s also my inher­i­tance. This book is what I’ve made of the sto­ries my grand­moth­er shared with me about being a Jew­ish teenag­er in Czer­nowitz, Roma­nia, dur­ing World War II and the Holo­caust. Though my nana told me many things, in order to craft a nov­el, I had to do deep research into many aspects of the time peri­od, includ­ing the com­plex and unique his­to­ry of her par­tic­u­lar region. I sought out oth­er sur­vivors’ nar­ra­tives and cre­ative work pro­duced by those sur­vivors, and much, much more. 

Imag­ine that some­one gives you a pre­cious plate and it shat­ters. Now imag­ine drop­ping those pieces into the shards of six mil­lion oth­er shat­tered plates, some rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from your plate, some near­ly iden­ti­cal. Can you ever put the plate you were giv­en togeth­er again? Most like­ly, no. But what you can do is sift gen­tly and rev­er­ent­ly through the shards, find­ing as many of the pieces of your plate as you can, and col­lect­ing oth­er sharp-edged, beau­ti­ful, ter­ri­ble pieces as well. You can take all these pieces and sit with them for many years, and then do your very best to make some­thing with them — a mosa­ic. A piece of art that hon­ors the orig­i­nal plate, even if it can­not be sal­vaged, that finds a way to make art from so many bro­ken, price­less things. That’s what writ­ing this book felt like. It’s my nana’s sto­ry, but it’s not hers alone. It’s also a trib­ute to the oth­er Czer­now­itzers who endured the Holo­caust, and the pogroms before — and to all those who perished. 

Author’s grand­moth­er Frie­da, right, and family

I always knew that both of my grand­par­ents had sur­vived the Holo­caust — my grand­fa­ther, in Poland, and my grand­moth­er, in Roma­nia. They met and mar­ried after the war. I learned about con­cen­tra­tion camps in school, and when I asked my nana if she’d been impris­oned, she said, Not exact­ly.” What I didn’t under­stand for many years was that the expe­ri­ence of Jews — and Roma, dis­abled, and queer peo­ple — in Roma­nia was dif­fer­ent from the sto­ries made pop­u­lar in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, media, and his­to­ry books. There were no con­cen­tra­tion camps in Roma­nia, but that absolute­ly didn’t mean that there was no Holo­caust. Instead, there was a sys­temic, slow era­sure of Jew­ish rights and pro­tec­tions that began before the war, inten­si­fied dur­ing it, and result­ed in the Jew­ish res­i­dents los­ing their sta­tus as cit­i­zens and their right to do busi­ness. After these legal restric­tions, the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion was cor­ralled into an inhu­mane­ly small and unsan­i­tary ghet­to, and waves of bru­tal depor­ta­tions and mur­ders ensued.

The war years in Czer­nowitz, Roma­nia, and the fate of its Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion have not been exten­sive­ly writ­ten about. It should be com­mon knowl­edge that Roma­nia is the coun­try that killed the most Jews of any oth­er coun­try except Nazi Ger­many. Even before the war, there was a long his­to­ry of Roman­ian anti­semitism and vio­lent attacks on Jews. Dur­ing World War II, over 400,000 Jews were mur­dered in Roman­ian-con­trolled areas. Unlike Ger­many, Roma­nia has not done the work of acknowl­edg­ing and remem­ber­ing its ter­ri­ble his­to­ry. In fact, dur­ing the com­mu­nist regime , the gov­ern­ment blocked access to and even destroyed archival mate­r­i­al from the war peri­od, allow­ing all blame for the treat­ment of Jews to be deflect­ed onto Nazi Ger­many. It was only after the fall of the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment in 1989 that archives were slow­ly opened, and remain­ing arti­facts were allowed to be accessed. This process is still ongo­ing, and most peo­ple are still unfa­mil­iar with the his­to­ry in this region and the extent of the murders.

Author’s grand­moth­er Frie­da, lat­er in life

This is what hap­pened: After World War I and the col­lapse of Aus­tria-Hun­gary, the area around Czer­nowitz — North­ern Bukov­ina — was award­ed to Roma­nia. At the time, eth­nic Roma­ni­ans made up only a quar­ter of Czernowitz’s 112,000 peo­ple. Jews con­sti­tut­ed the biggest group, at least 27%, accord­ing to the 1930 cen­sus, and the city was con­sid­ered a rel­a­tive­ly safe haven for them. Oth­er large groups includ­ed Ger­mans, Ukraini­ans, and Poles. When Nazi-Ger­many invad­ed Poland in 1939 to start World War II, the Sovi­et Union used the inva­sion as a pre­text to occu­py North­ern Bukov­ina, includ­ing Czer­nowitz. In 1940, Roma­nia joined forces with Hitler. When the Ger­mans attacked the Sovi­et Union in June 1941, the Nazis and their Roman­ian allies quick­ly over­ran North­ern Bukov­ina (and Czer­nowitz). The Ger­mans arrived in the city in ear­ly July of that year and trans­ferred con­trol of the area back to Romania.

The Roma­ni­ans, gen­er­al­ly, bent over back­wards to car­ry out the anti-Jew­ish poli­cies of their Ger­man allies. They stripped Jew­ish cit­i­zens of their rights and prop­er­ty. The city’s 50,000 Jew­ish res­i­dents were forced to move into a sealed ghet­to. Many res­i­dents died from inhu­mane con­di­tions inside the ghet­to, and waves of Jew­ish pris­on­ers were trans­ferred from the ghet­to to exter­mi­na­tion camps — most, to Transnis­tria. Thou­sands died en route, and those who sur­vived the jour­ney were left to die of star­va­tion, weath­er con­di­tions, and disease. 

It wasn’t until after I pub­lished my first nov­el in 2012 that Nana filled in some of the gaps in the war sto­ries I’d heard. Hear­ing what she final­ly shared, I under­stood why. When I was young, she’d edit­ed out the worst of things to spare me from them. Though she’d shared sto­ries about her fam­i­ly life — going to the coun­try­side for a sum­mer, where she was chased by geese; her mean-as-a-snake-but-incred­i­ble old­er sis­ter Astra; their atten­dance at a bal­let acad­e­my, and the rela­tion­ships made there — near the end of her life, she trust­ed me with much more of it— the com­plex rela­tion­ships between her moth­er and her father; her sis­ter and her lover; her­self and a man who both pro­vid­ed for and abused her; what hap­pened to her beloved grand­fa­ther. But I’ll bet, know­ing her, even then she held back some of her most painful remem­brances as an act of love. And she hoped that some­day I could use her expe­ri­ences in a book. Just name the char­ac­ter Fred­erieke,” she told me. I’ve always liked that name.” 

Author’s grand­moth­er Frie­da as a school girl 

The Blood Years is the sto­ry of my nana’s teenage years in Czer­nowitz, Roma­nia before and dur­ing World War II. It’s a love sto­ry about sis­ters. It’s about bal­let, and bears, and the ways our fam­i­lies can fail us. It’s a book about the great and ter­ri­ble things peo­ple do in the name of love. And it’s my attempt to do with my nana’s gift of sto­ries what I try to do with all my work — to trans­form pain into art, to embrace ambi­gu­i­ty, and to find beau­ty even in the ugli­est of moments.

Elana K. Arnold is the award-win­ning author of many books for chil­dren and teens, includ­ing The House That Wasn’t There, the Printz Hon­or win­ner Damsel, the Nation­al Book Award final­ist What Girls Are Made Of, and the Glob­al Read Aloud selec­tion A Boy Called Bat. She is a mem­ber of the fac­ul­ty at Ham­line University’s MFA in writ­ing for chil­dren and young adults pro­gram, and lives in Long Beach, CA, with her hus­band, two chil­dren, and a menagerie of ani­mals. You can find her online at www​.elanakarnold​.com.