“And from a gloomy land of lonely exile to a new country bade me come…” Pushkin

Introduction and Review

Before anyone pokes at my reading choice, Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse is based on a true story of Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution, oppression, and execution during the Russian Civil War of 1919. The story is based on the author’s grandmother Rifka, featuring her journey through a series of letters to her cousin Tovah. It is a children’s book, but it’s absolutely appropriate for all ages, from eight-years-old to fifty-years old. It’s an eye-opening read that brightens the light on the tumultuous journey immigrants have had to face to get to America both in the early 1920’s and even in modern times. What I found most illuminating from this book was the history of abuse Jewish people suffered before the holocaust. The book was educational, heartfelt, and fascinating.

Novel Plot

            If Hollywood ever needed a fresh idea using an inspirational heroine, I would suggest they take a look at Rifka’s tale. During the Russian Civil War in 1919, Rifka and her family are forced to escape Russia. During those times, local law enforcement and soldiers not only abused, terrorized, and robbed Jewish peasants for simply being Jewish, they would also force the men to join their army and act as their slaves. At best, Jewish men would have to complete tasks no one else wanted such as scrubbing the floors and sleeping amongst rodents and at worst, they would be forced to sacrifice themselves on the front lines for people who despised them. Rifka’s older brothers Nathan and Saul avoid the front lines by escaping the army and running back home, a severe penalty that requires their execution. They were damned whether they stayed or left. This encourages the family of five to escape their small town by taking the train to a safe location. Taking the train is no easy task either and Rifka, who was born with blonde hair and blue eyes, has to fool the guards with her appearance and her wit to save her family and ensure their safety to Belgium. On her travels, Rifka suffers through hunger, theft, poverty, Typhus, and ringworm forcing her to stay behind alone while her family is allowed to enter the boat to America.  Through determination and strong will, Rifka overcomes and arrives to America, independently and successfully.

Conclusion and Review

This is an amazing book, as I’ve mentioned before I normally won’t review or promote a book I don’t love anyway, but this book is a solid 10! It’s ironic that I find children’s literature, and sometimes young adult literature, to be more informative than fiction created for adults. Perhaps, it’s because it’s a children’s book I’m reviewing it favorably but it does it’s job well. These letters portray the sort of influential, heart-wrenching stories we should be focusing on, the journey of escaping persecution for a better life without fear and filled with opportunity. There’s a few letters within the book that stung and resonated with me. Rifka, who is no stranger to starvation and poverty, is robbed of her food and goods several times throughout the book just because she’s Jewish and a “peasant.” She is robbed before her journey and throughout it. And it has me thinking that not only should we be sympathetic to their life here but compassionate to where they may have come from and why they came. This story exhibits a powerful portrait of a real, valid struggle.

If we could bring awareness to both small and large issues in the turbulent journeys of immigrants from all walks of life, we can bring greater compassion and possibly, dare I say it, even unity. 10/10 for Karen Hesse!