In the early 1930s in Warsaw, Jewish friends Rifka and Bronka act on their ambition to get away from home and to make something. They start a lingerie shop making corsets and brassieres. They are very good seamstresses and the shop is successful. Customers bring news and reactions to events as Hitler gains more power and starts the murder of those he doesn’t like—Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, communists and socialists, and especially Jews.
I wasn’t sure how much I’d like a book set in 1930s Warsaw. I know what is coming as I read the girls’ excited plans and the success they are having. But I still get drawn into the story: These teenagers striking out on their own, getting away from the tedious work at home, and having their skills appreciated by their customers.
I expected the invasion and the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, but the story took a different turn. Rifka (who is modeled on the author’s mother) decides to go to Palestine to find her older sister, who had emigrated there in the 1920s. The British still control it, so she and others are smuggled ashore. Palestine and its troubles, like the Arab War in 1936, are intriguing. Rifka goes on to Spain as part of the International Brigade to fight the fascist overthrow of the government there.
I was drawn in by the people. They became real people to me, in full color—ordinary people, like you and me, running from bombs and soldiers. They weren’t historical figures in black and white, like the people in the newsreels, which is how I thought of them when I was a kid. Ordinary people went to the concentration camps. Real people like the Ukrainians now, modern people.
The story is loosely based on the author’s mother’s war experience. But her mother destroyed a lot of material to do with those times and didn’t talk much about it, so Berkovits decided to fictionalize the story, to share something of what people went through.
I liked the book so much I have also started reading Berkovits’s memoir Aftermath: Coming of Age on Three Continents (part of the Holocaust Survivor True Stories WWII from Amsterdam Publishers).