A few years ago, I reviewed Monica Hesse’s YA novel Girl in the Blue Coat, a story of intrigue and mystery set amongst the resistance in Amsterdam during WWII. It was an excellent novel, and Hesse has done it again with They Went Left. This YA novel features another teenaged girl as protagonist, but this time the story is set in the immediate aftermath of the war. Nazis exterminated Zofia’s parents, grandmother and aunt, and they nearly killed her as well. She is suffering from PTSD but is also determined to find her younger brother Abek whom she last saw at Birkenau. Hesse has once again done excellent historical research to tell the story of the refugees who flooded Red Cross and UN camps in Europe at the end of the war, a side of the story of the Holocaust that to my knowledge has not been explored in literature before. They Went Left explores themes related to trauma, memory, and how one moves forward after experiencing such shattering tragedy.
Zofia Lederman is 18 years old when the war ends. She somehow survived the atrocities of the Birkenau and Gross-Rosen concentration camps, but she is emaciated and recovering in what seems to be a psych ward at a Red Cross hospital in Poland when the novel begins. She is one of the “nothing girls” — survivors of the camps who have nothing, weigh nothing, feel nothing and whose minds are nothing. Zofia is making some progress in part thanks to the kind support of the Red Army soldier Dima who found her and who tries to help her. Everyone knows that Zofia wants to find her younger brother Abek, the only member of her family who, like her, was sent right at Birkenau instead of left to certain death. Zofia promised Abek that she would take care of him and that they would reunite after the war at their home in the small industrial town Sosnowiec, where their family had run a clothing factory. But the siblings were separated at the camp and Zofia has not seen Abek for years. Zofia has spent several weeks hospitalized before she can get back to her family’s old apartment, but when she gets there, there’s no sign of Abek and no one has seen or heard from him. The Red Cross, Dima, and his commanding officer recommend that Zofia write letters to the various agencies that are coordinating refugee services, but Zofia cannot wait the weeks and months it might take for letters to get back about Abek. She sets off on her own to Munich, having heard that those liberated from Birkenau were sent to a UN camp there called Foehrenwald.
At Foehrenwald, Zofia does not find Abek but she meets refugees and camp survivors like herself. Yet Zofia notes that in some respects they are different from her. Her roommates Breine and Esther are focused on learning skills from the UN, such as farming and stenography, because they plan to emigrate to Israel. Breine is engaged to Chaim, whom she met at Foehrenwald only a month or so previously. Zofia is amazed that they are able to move on as they do while she is not only trying to find her lost brother but also struggling with her memory. As she explains it,
Sometimes timelines get mixed up in my head. Or I’ll think I remember something that didn’t happen, or I’ll forget something that did.
Zofia’s gap-filled memory and her PTSD complicate her efforts to find Abek, but she finds an unusual friend in Josef, who takes care of the horses at the camp. Josef is a loner who, shortly after meeting Zofia, gets involved in a brawl with another refugee. No one seems to know much about Josef and he initially seems aloof, but he and Zofia will form a bond that brings a little joy back to her life. She also uses her skills as a seamstress to help Breine with her wedding dress and others at the camp with their clothing as well. Slowly, Zofia finds herself again, but along with that come the memories that she has been suppressing.
Part 3 of this novel, where the stories of Zofia, Abek and Josef are fully revealed, is a powerful, emotional gut punch, and I feel like Hesse does a fantastic job of making this story believable and not maudlin. In her “Note on History and Research,” she reveals how she found her information and which parts of the novel are based on things that really happened and which are from her imagination. Just as with Girl in the Blue Coat, I finished They Went Left in just a couple of days because I couldn’t put it down. This is an excellent piece of historical fiction and could lead to some great discussions in a book group.