When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2021.

When The World Was Ours is an exceptional book. It is so incredibly powerful that I had to take breaks as I read to recover from the emotional impact it had. The book explores the rise of the Nazis and the spread of fascism in Europe. It is hard-hitting and harrowing.

The story begins in Vienna in 1936. It’s a split-narrative with chapters told from the points of view of three children, Elsa, Leo and Max. They are best friends. Their lives revolve around each other and they intend to be friends forever. As they pose together for a photograph at the top of the Ferris wheel, they feel invincible. Yet for the reader there’s a sense of foreboding – the joy of this innocent friendship can’t last.

At first, the changes to their lives are gradual: Max’s father snubbing Leo’s; Elsa’s parents talking in secret in sad, hushed voices. Then things get serious. In 1937 Elsa and her family flee to Czechoslovakia because they know Austria is no longer safe for Jews. Max’s father (an officer rising through the Nazi ranks) becomes more and more outspoken about his hatred of Jews. By 1938 the children’s lives are unraveling and their friendship with it.

The book’s power lies in its unflinching portrayal of the Nazis’ cruelty and brutality. There are so many heartbreaking scenes in the book: the school assembly where the 12 Jewish children are singled out and humiliated in front of their classmates; the time when Leo witnesses his father on his hands and knees being forced to scrub a puddle while soldiers and civilians stand by and laugh. The dehumanisation of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis is deeply distressing: the theft of their property, their loss of rights to own homes and businesses, the establishment of ghettos and the mass transportations to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

Afterwards, when I no longer have my family, my name, my hair or my clothes, I realize the final thing has been taken from me: my identity. I am no one.

When The World Was Ours, page 252

As well as depicting the horrors that were inflicted upon Jewish families, the book also explores what might have motivated ordinary people to become involved or, at the very least, morally complicit in such an evil regime. We witness friends betraying friends, and others who stand by and fail to speak up in defence of the Jews. For many their inaction is due to fear, for others it is because they have succumbed to the insidious hatred pedalled by the Nazi regime. Max’s father is a cold, bitter man who is hungry for power. Max’s mother initially stands up to her husband and challenges some of his racist views, but the appeal of a fancy penthouse and a life of luxury in Munich is enough to make her forget her principles.

Then there is the change in Max. He has a difficult relationship with his father who considers him a disappointment. Max is desperate to earn his approval so it’s not too surprising to see him sign up for the Hitler Youth in a desire to please his father and finally make him proud. Soon, however, Max begins to enjoy the strict rules and regimented day, being told what to do and how to think, and the sense of belonging.

The feeling of being a small cog in a large, perfect machine was like nothing he had ever felt before and he couldn’t get enough of it.

When The World Was Ours, page 123

Initially he wrestles with guilt and uncertainty, but as time passes and he gets more deeply indoctrinated he is able to put aside his questions and doubts. I was struck by Liz Kessler’s decision to write Max’s chapters in the third person while Elsa and Leo’s chapters are first person narratives. It’s a stylistic choice which distances us even more from Max and separates him from his friends.

When The World Was Ours is essential reading. It’s vital that today’s children hear these stories and learn of the dangers of fascism and division, and where hatred of “the other” can lead.

While a story such as this one is always going to be harrowing, it is not without hope. There is kindness among its pages and moments of love, in particular the strength and power of family love – a reassuring constant throughout the book. There is also escape and the chance of a new beginning. The memory of the children’s friendship is precious and comforting to Elsa and Leo and is, ultimately, the one thing powerful enough to make Max see the truth.

When The World Was Ours is a devastating story and one which has had a profound effect on me. I will never forget the story of these three children.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 12+

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for sending me this book to review.

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