About the Book
A novel inspired by a true story of survival.
Esfir Manevich is a young Jewish girl who lives in the Polish town of Kobrin in 1936. Facing anti-Semitism in public school, Esfir moves in with her charming aunt who runs a boardinghouse in the bustling city of Brest. Being younger than the other boarders, Esfir struggles to find a place in her new life, all the while worrying about her diminishing role in the family she left behind.
As the years pass, Esfir experiences the bombing of her hometown during the German invasion of 1939. When the Russians overtake the area, Esfir sees many of her socialist relatives and friends become disillusioned by the harsh restrictions. During the German occupation, Esfir and her family are enclosed in a ghetto where they develop heartbreaking methods of survival.
In the summer of 1942, shortly before Esfir’s thirteenth birthday, the ghetto is liquidated and the inhabitants are forced onto cattle cars destined for the killing fields―and Esfir must face unimaginable horror.
From “Rewriting My Family Memoir as a Work of Fiction” by Andrea Simon, The ProsenPeople, The Jewish Book Council:
” . . . what if I began a fictional story in 1936, when the real Esfir would have been seven years old? My cousin Ida Midler would have been around fourteen. What if I send Esfir to Brest, the city where Ida attended the Tarbut Hebrew Gymnasium? I thought of my grandmother, who had run a boardinghouse in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Before I knew it, my grandmother morphed into Esfir’s fictional Aunt Perl, proprietor of a boardinghouse in Brest. Because of grave antisemitism at Esfir’s school in her hometown, I would send Esfir to live at Perl’s boardinghouse where she would become roommates with Ida, the counterpart of my real-life cousin. And thus the novel was born.”
From “If It Didn’t Exactly Happen, Can It Be True?” by Andrea Simon, The ProsenPeople, The Jewish Book Council:
“In tackling such an immense tragedy, I had two guiding principles: whatever Esfir did, it had to be within the realm of her personality, and whatever happened in the novel had to accurately reflect the events of the time. If my fictional characters were to be viable, they had to make their own decisions.”
For Readers and Book Clubs: Esfir Is Alive Reading Guide
“Esfir Is Alive is a powerful work—haunting, grave, compelling and terribly evocative. Esfir’s account of her journey toward adulthood, set against the events of WWII in the area now known as Belarus, is real and heartbreaking. The novel is full of vivid and quirky characters the reader cares about. The story is grounded in wonderful specificities about the characters’ lives. As a result, you completely believe in these people and weep over the tragedy that befalls them. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, and like all great literature, Esfir Is Alive is a story that conveys universality and truth.” — Katherine Kirkpatrick, author of Between Two Worlds and The Snow Baby
“Andrea Simon’s Esfir Is Alive will stay with me for a long time to come. Its poignant portrait of a young girl coming of age in a time of horror, is balanced with an authentic depiction of her everyday life in 1930s Poland, with a child’s dreams, concerns, fears and observations. Simon skillfully weaves in the backdrop of political, social and religious conditions, deepening the readers understanding of the complex nightmare that Esfir survives. Weaving a true story into gripping historical fiction is a skill, and Andrea Simon has mastered it.” — Barbara Stark-Nemon, author of Even in Darkness
A Cool & New read for November 2016 on teenreads.com.
“Never didactic, Simon’s characters—the charismatic Aunt Perl, astute Ida, and unprejudiced Ania—are refreshingly complex, and the prose, whether depicting a beloved doll or coffinlike cattle cars, remains unflinching and precise. Though its scope is ambitious (a span of approximately 16 years), this story, like Esfir herself, is achingly alive. An appended Yiddish glossary and discussion questions further enhance the text.” — Briana Shemroske, Booklist
“[Readers] will stay rooted in the everyday triumphs and growing pains of the narrator’s development from little girl to young lady, all while becoming more familiar with the facets of pre-Holocaust existence not often taught in class.” — School Library Journal
“Telling the story through the eyes of a child brings an incredible sensibility to the story, and makes the horrid reality of the Holocaust understandable for anyone to see.” — Rachel De Paz, Review, teenreads.com
“A personal story for Andrea Simon, who can trace her ancestry to near Esfir’s quaint but war-torn Belorussian village, there is heartbreak and hope, along with the determination that those lost will never be forgotten.” — Foreword Reviews
“This novel admirably and passionately attempts to reconstruct the lost world of pre-war Jewish Poland and the experiences of real-life survivor Esfir Manevich.” — AJL Reviews
“Told in the first person, the majority of the book takes place before the family is forced into the ghetto, and vivid details give an absorbing picture of Jewish life in Polish towns in the late ’30s. Some of the minor characters were drawn from the author’s own family . . . . I was glad to learn about a facet of the Shoah I knew little about.” — B.J. Sedlock, Historical Novel Society
“Simon has created a three-dimensional tragic heroine who herself is spared, but who stands for all the others who perished.” — Reviewed by Helen Schary Motro, Esra Magazine
“Once again Andrea Simon has given us a work of power and poignancy as she narrates the story of a young girl caught up in turmoil of pre-war Poland and then in the dual occupations of the Soviet Union and of Nazi Germany. Her writing is crisp and moving. Her grasp of history is assured and her sensitivity to the historical turmoil as experienced by a young girl is pronounced. Enter this world of darkness, grief and loss with young Esfir and you will experience the depth of evil and the travails of human endurance. The power with which Andrea Simon brings Esfir and her era back to life will only magnify your sense of loss for the world that was and the people who were murdered in the Shoah.” — Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, California; former President of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
The public primary school that I attended was a two-story complex of white stone buildings, partially offset by a picket fence and flanked by large oak trees, and named after the famous Polish leader Józef Pilsudski. There were about forty students in my class, including ten Jews. We sat at long wooden desks, about eight students packed in a row, plus there were a few two-student desks in the front. The buildings were cold and draughty, though shafts of rectangular window light warmed our arms if we sat in their direct path. Even on a day like this, a Saturday in early November 1936, most children, including me, wore sweaters.
Although the Jewish students were required to go to school on Shabbes, they didn’t have to write. Remaining with their hands folded was enough to show the others that they were different, but the Jewish kids knew they had to be quiet, too. They tried to blend in with the other dark-headed students, forming a kind of Semitic humming chorus, attending the Catholic morning prayers and religious classes.
All, that is, except for me. At seven, I was next to the youngest of the Jewish students. I was thin and pale, with blond hair and blue eyes, and the priest sometimes confused me with being Polish, as if it were a compliment. But I always fingered my silver Star of David necklace that my father buffed every Sunday night when he polished everything else in the house that was worthy of a shine. It wasn’t only my looks that made me stand out from the other Jewish students; it was the fact that I never quite learned to keep my mouth shut. And that included singing the Catholic hymns, which I only understood this morning not to do when the priest walked down the aisle, stopped in front of me, and, with his bible, slapped me on the head.
If they were lucky, students brought lunch, including dark bread with butter, cheese, or a hard-boiled egg. And if it wasn’t too cold, they sometimes ate in the fenced-in yard, under the mammoth oak trees. The boys often threw acorns at each other.
On this day, one of the Jewish boys, Berl, had fallen asleep sitting on a bench in the yard after eating his lunch. He woke up when a group of Polish and Belorussian boys pinned down his arms. One of them, from a higher grade, took out a bottle of ink and a brush and painted a cross on Berl’s shirt, while another boy, whom I recognized as the bus driver’s son, Feliks, stuffed crumpled paper in Berl’s large bat-shaped ears. Berl coughed and sputtered, finally spitting on Feliks who punched him in the nose. Blood spurted down Berl’s face onto his white shirt, and the boys disappeared as quickly as cabbage-stuffed rabbits chased by a nap-awoken gardener.
I was standing on the other end of the yard and ran over to Berl. Taking my sweater that had been draped around my shoulders, I offered him a sleeve to wipe the blood from his face. Berl started to cry and snot leaked from his nose. I cringed when he rubbed it onto my brown woolen sweater sleeve. When Berl seemed able to stand, I returned to my original spot where I had left my notebook. All over the cover, there was ink, the same blue-black color that was on Berl’s shirt. Instead of the boys, though, a half-dozen Polish girls stood in a small circle, pointing at me, singsonging, “the Jew girl,” and cackling like witches.
Determined not to show them I cared, I took the sweater I had lent Berl and, with the clean sleeve, swiped my notebook cover. Now I had one sleeve red with blood and the other stained with ink. I managed to last the rest of the day, but as soon as school was over, I ran home, looking over my shoulder every few minutes, not sure if I expected the bullying boys or the girls to follow me. I knew one thing: I never wanted to set foot in that school again.