Once We Were Home

Image of Once We Were Home: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 14, 2023
Flatiron Books
Reviewed by: 

“Based on actual occurrences during World War II, this is sure to open the eyes of those skeptics who had questions about the pain and tragedy so many suffered, all to protect their progeny, . . .”

This intensely moving tome commences in 1949 when we meet seven-year-old Roger, who lives in the Convent of Sainte Marie de Scion near Marseille. Currently preparing to be baptized as a Christian, he's been told he "was born to parents whose religion killed Jesus." He is mainly afraid of Sister Chantal, for she supervises his every move and is ready to punish him for any little misdeed. But he likes Sister Brigitte, with whom he can ask questions and not worry about getting his ears boxed.

Roger lives happily in relative confinement with his best friend, Henri. He spends his spare time writing stories and is happy when Sister Brigitte praises him for his imagination. Yet Roger has a nemesis named Albert, a boy the adults think is angelic; however, he is forever mocking and teasing Roger, always making him nervous. 

As other boys are being picked up by family members, Sister Brigitte tells him he has no one. His parents placed him at the Saint Vincent nursery when he was three for safekeeping, and it appears they have been lost in the war.

Madame Mercier, the nursery's biggest benefactor, takes charge of Roger, squiring him to church to receive his baptism and then to a monastery, where he is raised by monks in the Catholic faith. When a relative tries to liberate him, the church secrets him so he won’t be found.

Soon he is rescued by his aunt Sarah and whisked off to live with her, his uncle, and two male cousins, where they find the language barrier between French and Spanish somewhat tricky. Though trained as a Catholic, Roger reverts to Judaism and is called Rami, his Hebrew moniker.

In 1942, seven-year-old Mira Kowalski and her brother Daniel, age three, are bathed by their mama, bundled up, and hustled into a car where they're told to crouch onto the floor. Their mama states she is sending them away to keep them safe, saying they'll only be away for a short time. She professes her love for her youngsters while begging Mira to take care of Daniel. Mira is consumed with fear, and she and Daniel are hidden under a blanket as they escape the Polish ghetto to head to the home of a Christian friend of their mother's. With the war blazing, and many of the Jewish faith being transported to camps where they are used for hard, manual labor or executed, Mama realizes this is the only way to save her precious children.

Upon their arrival, their new caregiver states:

"'It's best if you call me ciocia.'

"'But you're not my aunt.' [Said by Mira]

"The woman's cheeks go pink. ‘You will call me Ciocia Agata. And I will call you Anastazja. This will be your name from now on, and your brother will be Oskar. These are the names of my sister's children, my niece, and my nephew. We'll say you're here because my sister, Jadzia, is ill. You mustn't, under any circumstances, use your other names. You're here to be kept safe. Do you understand?'"

As time passes, Mira aka Ana never forgets her mother, though Oskar is too young to share her angst in wanting to find their parents. Not knowing any different, he is content with his new family and being raised as a Christan. He lives a very comfortable existence with his aunt and uncle, who shower both children with love.

More than 20 years pass, and Ana, Oskar, and now Roger now live their lives as adults. Trying to forget their traumatic past and their blood family, Ana cannot stop searching for her beloved mama and re-embracing her Jewish roots. At the same time, Oskar finds it a challenge to embrace his heritage and wants to cling to Christianity.

Ana marries, and before long, Oskar also does, with the siblings living nearby. Though they were raised differently from their birthright, they are siblings, and they share the burdens and trauma they suffered as children while together they put the pieces of their past behind them.

Meanwhile, Roger meets an archeologist named Renata in Israel, whose passion is unearthing relics from long ago. She and Roger are at one with each other, seemingly soul mates, but worries hamper on his part inhibiting further closeness. Renata is working on a dig, and misses her recently deceased mother. As she looks to unearths ruins, she ruminates about her childhood and why her mother spirited them both from Germany long ago.

This powerful tale is complicated in many parts. The reader must discern the relationships between the characters, especially with their names being changed; the time difference is inconsistent; and Mira/Ana and Daniel/Oskar’s relationship to Roger and Renate is confusing. In retrospect, the way these loving parents worked diligently to keep their children free from the atrocities of war proves to come full circle after decades. Based on actual occurrences during World War II, this is sure to open the eyes of those skeptics who had questions about the pain and tragedy so many suffered, all to protect their progeny, and how those who endured this horror were able to survive and return to their authentic roots.