We Who Lived
This hard to put down page turner is the story of Eva Bromberg.
Eva Bromberg’s survival was unlikely from the moment her mother slipped on the ice and delivered her after seven months’ gestation. Yet she (unlike her twin sister who died in childbirth) survived and flourished in Warsaw in spite of the anti-Semitism endemic in Polish society for a millennium. Her future husband, Ephraim Ben-Zvi and his family also managed to thrive in their little Polish town, even in the face of increasing prejudice against Jews, who made up one-third of the population of the country.
Eva grew up to be Hava Ben-Zvi, our narrator. She was a witness to the greatest homicide ever known in world history. Americans, in modern times, cannot imagine the existential threat posed to Polish Jews by the Nazis. Eva saw and lived through the mass murder of the entire Jewish population of her little village-town, she herself sitting in, in the Christian home of the family sheltering her. Following her father’s death, she ceased being a child, and quickly adapted to her frightening reality, becoming an alert, sensitive, self-controlled and resourceful teenager, dodging repeated brushes with discovery and death.
Eva was able to “pass” as a Pole by a combination of luck, by having blonde hair, blue eyes, her Catholic nanny’s “tutoring” in executing the sign of the cross and Catholic prayers, her flawless Polish. Eva’s amazing presence of mind helped her to evade capture by the Nazis for four years, not to mention the kindness of those who might have had their suspicions of her true identity, but did not betray her. She found temporary shelter in a government orphanage and on a farm.
The Boy and Girl Who Lived paints and preserves the daily details of life before and after the rise of authoritarian and extreme racist views became ascendant in Poland and Russia. The book serves as a vivid witness to Polish Jewish life before, during, and after Nazis obliterated one-third of that nation’s population.
The Boy and Girl Who Lived is a cautionary, warning tale for our time. It serves not only a witness to the disastrous events of World War II, but a testimony about how rapidly our normal, productive life can collapse in the face of battling political forces, demagoguery and nationalist governments.
The Boy and Girl Who Lived is not just a lesson in history it is a glorious story of resilience, strength, and hope. It is a terrific read that belongs in all libraries. For Hava Ben-Zvi is more than a wonderful writer. She is Eva Bromberg, the girl who lived.
–Irene McDermott, City Librarian, San Marino, CA
Hava Ben-Zvi revisits her childhood experiences with courage, honesty and humility. The book paints a vivid picture of the life of a Jewish family before, during and after the war. A lifelong booklover, and future librarian, Hava introduces popular song and literature of the time that was an integral part of her life as a little girl growing up in Warsaw. We meet her family and the consequences of her parents’ divorce. Throughout, Hava provides the reader with historical context, all the while keeping the reader grounded in the experience of a young girl navigating the unthinkable.
Hava introduces a parallel experience with her husband Ephraim’s experience as an exile to Siberia, and later a soldier. Hava lovingly recreated his story from partial recollections her late husband shared, with his brother filling in many details.
By taking us through the war and the later years rebuilding their lives in Israel and later California, We Who Lived: Two Teenagers in World War II Poland is a testament to the human spirit and to the courage of those whose choices helped them survive. As survivors, Hava and Ephraim show us two different experiences bonded in love and with a commitment for future generations to create a more peaceful and just world. This is an inspirational story, which will bear witness, and educate about the power of empathy and standing up to hate.
Marti Tippens Murphy
Executive Director, Memphis
Facing History and Ourselves
We Who Lived.
I’m always a sucker for memoirs, and especially memoirs written about experiences or periods of time that capture some of the essence of what it meant to be a Jew at that time and in that place.
Hava Ben-Tzvi’s memoir, called ‘We Who Lived, Two Teenagers in World War II Poland’ packs a lot of poignant detail into some deceptively simple and easy-to-read prose – I read the book in one sitting. The story begins in Poland, transverses the horrors of World War II and the holocaust, and then skips over to life in Israel, where Hava meets and marries her husband, Ephraim.
Later, Ephraim and Hava are given the chance to study in the US, and even though they intend to return to the holy land, it seems God had other plans.
Essentially, Hava and Ephraim were eye-witnesses, deep in the crucible of suffering that would eventually lead to the birth of the State of Israel, and as such, these memoirs are an invaluable snapshot of that time, and those places.
I often find with a lot of holocaust memoirs that the material is written in a very pared-back, almost spartan way, and the same is true of We Who Lived. When you’re dealing with first-hand accounts of such tremendous human drama and suffering, that understated style seems to be the only way to convey what needs to be said without overwhelming the reader, or the writer, with too much detail and too much pain.
Often, these books understandably end up with a kind of distant feel to them as a result, where you feel the writer is trying to reach across the chasm that separates them from people who didn’t experience what they went through, but then discovers that words alone are still not alone to bridge that gap.
This book also has a little of that ‘distant’ feel in parts – where I’d like to have known more about Hava’s life in the US, and more about the faces of the dead she sees reflected in her very much alive grandchildren. But on the whole, I think the writer has done a very good job of conveying a lot in a little, understated way, leaving it to the reader’s imagination to fill in more of the details.
So, I highly recommend this book as a snapshot of life in Poland during World War II and in the newly-created State of Israel, and I personally feel that each one of these memoirs that makes it out into the world is a gem, in its own way, that needs to be appreciated and found a place in the crown of Jewish literature.
Hava’s story is not just her own, it’s the story of her people, the Jewish people. And also, a reminder that every day of life God gives us is something to be grateful for.