by Liz Kessler
This is the story of three children from Vienna – Leo, Elsa and Max – whose lives are devastated by intolerance, prejudice, ignorance and hate. It is 1936 and as they celebrate Leo’s ninth birthday, everything is perfect for these best friends.
They are so sure of their futures, determined that they will always be together. The only doubt is which of the boys will marry Elsa.
Telling their story over the following nine years, When The World Was Ours is an inspiring and cautionary tale. Based on events in her own family, Liz Kessler uses the voices of her three young friends to highlight the true horrors of not just the Nazis but any and all extreme nationalist views.
As I write this review, the news is full of the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although we might not be seeing the same level of atrocities inflicted during WWII, references to genocide and neo-Naziism can’t help but raise tensions and fears.
There has been a lot written about the holocaust and its impact. What makes this book particularly interesting is that it is told through the eyes and voices of the young. There is an innocence to the characters’ narratives as they struggle to understand what is happening to them and the ones they love. It begins with the pain of separation as the three families are pulled apart.
For Leo and Elsa, the fact they are Jews has never been an issue before. It is something that has never been important, the fact that they shared a different religion to their best friend Max. But with the coming of Hitler, everything changes. As Leo and Elsa face persecution, Max’s father begins to rise through the Nazi ranks.
Each of the three face different challenges as the war progresses, but what I love about this book is the way they hold onto their hope and their innocence, despite everything that is going on around them.
The reader is given a snapshot of each year through the eyes of the best friends. Leo and Elsa tell their own stories, whilst Max’s story is in the third person. I was particularly saddened by Max’s journey. All he ever wanted was for his father to love him. But to achieve that he had to abandon everything else he loved, including his own innocence and humanity.
Over the past few years, I have come to realise that the most moving and emotionally challenging books I have read have been written for young adults. This one in particular hit a nerve. It is a wonderful story, expertly told. It is a book I would recommend anyone to read as the message it contains is as relevant now as ever.
When The World Was Ours is moving, challenging, emotional and totally absorbing. It is a “must read” book if ever I have read one.