Sitting in a circle you can see what is happening in the world right in front of you. In back of you is what is still to come. Off to the left you might see what is about to happen and to the right what you hope or dread never would. As Rivka and her family see the world, not all of them view it through the same eyes. Their field of vision and perception of the times, the war that is about to come and those that will inflict pain, sorrow and death on so many, difficult to see and in some cases clouded. Her mother views the world as a place where she cares for her children, tries to speak her mind to her husband hoping that some day they will finally leave and go to the “land of gold,” or America. Her father, a boot maker has made his way in their world by creating boots that not only the Jewish people covet but the gentiles too. Added in those in charge of the military, the Russians and the Germans seem to want what he and only he can create. Treating his workers fairly, paying higher wages than most his business has its ups and downs but for the most part thrives.
Mischa and Rivka are twins. One is smart and has a head for numbers and the other languages. Both twins different in so many ways and yet living in the same house but in two different worlds with dissimilar ideals for their futures. Mischa wants his life to run in a different direction than Rivka. Wanting to experience life outside of his village he is enthralled with the way things are happening when the Old Russian government falls and the New Russian is now in power. Justice, freedom and the rights of the people would surpass those of the rich and powerful. More than anything he was thrilled to be in Petrograd and to be educated even if how he got there required his father using more than just his influence and wealth. Listening to those in power speak and seeing the new Provisional Prince in person, hearing Leon Trotsky, and a man named Lenin thinking that his visions for the future was really what he would aspire too.
Rivka had her own vision for herself but quite different than you might think. Hearing her voice you begin to wonder whether she realized her worth and value to this family. Helping her father in his business, her mother at home and learning more about the war and the world Rivka’s vision of what was yet to come on the left was quite different than Mischa’s. With the war in coming and the changes coming through many Jewish people were persecuted, killed, robbed and their homes burned leaving them without anywhere to go. Some lived in camps others on the street and some tried to escape. But, one incident would change it all for Rivka as she goes down to the shed to change their goat’s bedding and finds a precious little bundle that would become her life. A little baby boy that she would cherish and care for with all the love she could give to anyone. For two years she and her family took care of this child, nurtured him, loved him until the day things changed and her world crumbled. No matter how hard she fought she could not fight what did come and what was in front of her as the child’s parents came and took him away.
Shattered, broken and forlorn Rivka, the girl with spirit seemed to have her light dimmed and her spirit fading. Not until her mother spoke about her own losses and explained that she was not the only one who has suffered at the hand of others, did she appear to understand, go back to work but she was still a shell of what she was before. Mishca has his own new perspective of what he hoped would come to pass. As he looks to the right of the circle where he sits within his own ring of life or hope he sees his father and family coming to live with him in this new world that he has found and become accustomed.
A reaction from his father that will set in motion a chain of events that will change Rivka’s life. One letter with his thoughts and hopes for his family and himself might cause a silent war within his family equally as powerful as the one that has taken some many lives already. WWI cost many people their lives and the one that was brewing within this family might cost them even more.
Undying respect and loyalty is not easy to attain. As Rivka decides to defy her family, their wishes and their beliefs, listens to the words of one woman and becomes part of a battalion of young women willing to fight for what they feel is peace and freedom but in a way most would not fathom. The training more than brutal and rigorous, the rewards few and the punishments harsh, as a band of 1500 women enlist and undergo training that most men might not be able to endure. Throughout the novel you hear the voices of many people expressing their thoughts, views and beliefs about the war, how it should be fought and the compromises that many felt needed to be made. Some felt that within New Russia their should be committees to decide how to proceed whereas Yashka, the commander of Rivka’s Battalion of Death, was unyielding in her views, beliefs and stopped at nothing to get what she wanted. At times feeling defeated, many of her troops leaving and joining committees, and then something unexpected happens. As Mischa tries to reach out to Rivka to sway her to join the other side, she does not and what happens is quite compelling and leaves her alone with only those left in the Battalion to call family. Are these really her beliefs or is she just brainwashed? What happened to the freethinking young girl as thoughts of her life before, her family and her young child flood through each time a friend is killed, they lose ground on a mission or Yashka takes an unorthodox action.
War takes on many faces but when the commander of their battalion is brutally killed what happens next will either endear you to Yashka or make you wonder what is going to happen next. Listening to Yashka relate what happened in Petrograd it seems that those at the top are fighting for control. Some banished to other places and a letter from her brother would enlighten her. There are so many wars being fought along with the one against Russia and Germany. At times the reader wonders whether Rivka is fighting for her own beliefs or that of Yashka. You often wonder whether she really believes in what she is doing or is just so enthralled with this woman she cannot see clearly the changes that the country is undergoing and decide what is really right. What about her family? Was she dead to them?
As Yasha’s voice is heard when departing for Petrograd and her journey. You hear how she lived, struggled, her thoughts about the Germans, Russians and the war along with the many deceptions she created into order to survive. But, what happens next reminded her and the reader that no one was exempt or above what was deemed their law. As she was marched in place with many other women and about to be killed someone comes to the forefront and she receives what some would think a reprieve but others a stay of execution but for how long? But, the end came and she was freed and along with Rivka they take the next journey as we hear more voices relate their experiences. Filippov is the next voice followed by Aaronsohn, Avram and their final destination. The British and the Americans were sure to come an take over the city as you hear the voice of Filippov, Yashka and Rivka are targets and the end result still awaits. Rivka filled with confidence, went to the consulate and hoped as Rivka’s journey and war takes on another direction. Illness strikes her and the author brings to light more than just the fears that plagued her and Yashka regarding their lives, freedom and the direction of the country as they embark for Israel and her first reaction not what you would expect. Rehovoth was where she wound up living in a barracks and the many controversies that are brought to light concerning a Jewish State, Yiddish vs. Hebrew and much more.
A man named Avram would change it all for her as one war did not end and another would be coming. Just how this all ends and where Rivka winds up as she finally comes to grips with what she sees within the circle that is now right in front of her. Author Marilyn Oser sums it up for Rivka, Avram and the reader when you read page 232 and hear his voice and hers as they decide when and if Rivka’s War within herself and that of the world come to an end?
The history, the story, the characters and the courage of so many are brought to light in this novel based on actual facts. Losses, hope, revenge, sacrifice, trust, deceit, lies and survival comprise this outstanding novel. Jewish life was difficult during the war and many might not realize that it is still difficult in many parts of the world now. The Yiddish expressions brought back many memories and the history of a nation that is still hoping to be recognized brought to light. Hear their voices, read their words, understand her struggle and find out more about this courageous woman and so many others. This is a five star novel.
Dedicate to all those that fought for freedom:
ווידמען צו אַלע יענע וואָס געקעמפט פֿאַר פֿרייַהייט
Fran Lewis: reviewer