Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Until the German occupation, Hanna spent her time exploring Kwasova with her younger siblings, admiring the drawings of the handsome Leon Stadnick, and helping her neighbor dye decorative pysanky eggs. But now she, Leon, and their families are forced to flee and hide in the forest outside their shtetele–and then in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows, rumored to harbor evil spirits.
Underground, they battle sickness and starvation, while the hunt continues above. When Hanna’s father disappears, suddenly it’s up to Hanna to find him–and to find a way to keep the rest of her family, and friends, alive.
I have read a lot of historical fiction stories about world war two, but this novel has really blown me away. The story was inspired by a lady called Ester Stermer and her family who survived the world war 2 invasion by hiding in bunkers and underground caves. It’s estimated that less than 5 percent of the Jewish population in Ukraine survived the Holocaust so a survival story like Ester Stermer’s is extremely rare. I think because My Real Name is Hanna is based on this true story
it makes the novel mean so much more to the reader, especially with this fragile and harrowing subject matter.
The main character in the novel is a young female protagonist called Hanna Slivka. Hanna is a normal 14 year old girl who values school, friends and family. When the war hits her life is slowly turned upside down and she has to deal with unspeakable things. Throughout the novel she is a brave, courageous, intelligent and caring girl who understands the war and doesn’t complain or fuss about anything whilst she is in hiding. She has a positive way of thinking and has a passion for life which keeps her going. She doesn’t quite understand why her religion and people are under attack, why any other human being would make others suffer in such a way. She spends her young adult life trapped in total darkness inside a cave and just gets on with it although when she surfaces she says “ this is how life should be, being able to move around freely about in space with no chains or fears or limits” she understands what life should be like, she knows what is happening to her and her family is so wrong even if she doesn’t understand why, she like many other Jews in hiding just want their freedom back. I felt for her age she was acted very mature and adult she took so many things in her stride without complaint or fuss. I really loved her as a character as she was just so strong and independent but had the caring and sweet side of her as well.
I thought the novel started quite slowly however felt that this reflected on how the Nazi’s worked. Slowly changing things for the Jewish population, creeping in and isolating these innocent people until it was all too late for them. Hanna, her family and friends realise what is going to happen to them if they stay in their home town and they flee into the forest where they live for months on very small portions of stale food and only surviving because of the kindness of others. Later in the novel their safe hiding place becomes discovered and they result to living in a dark cave for over a year. The tension in the novel builds up gradually, as a reader you keep thinking how on earth will these people survive with no food, light or medicine. They live in constantly fear either in hiding or on the run and whilst reading you really do feel so fearful for these innocent family’s lives, every unexpected twist and turn I was on the edge of my seat biting my nails hoping that they found a safe way out. At one-point Hanna’s father says “This is what those Nazis make us do huh? Live like barbarians. But the best revenge, my Eva, is just that – to live…” Even though they are filthy, starving, ill, cold and terrified they continue to live in these horrific conditions because they know it is their only way to survive and to “beat” the Nazi’s.
A great part of their survival throughout the book is down to trusting the right people, who are kind to them even if it may cost their own lives. A pivotal character who helped the Slivka family to live was Hanna’s neighbour Alla, whom takes a great fondness to Hanna and helps her and her family throughout the novel whether that be looking after their pets, not dobbing them into the SS, feeding them and giving them money. Alla saves their family time and time again and the only reason she does so is because Hanna is such a lovely, caring sweet girl who takes an interest in her. Without people like Alla even more Jewish families would have perished under the SS and Nazi regime. Another reason for their continued survival was their hope and faith in their religion, which is ironically being shunned and one of the main reasons for the war. The family pray, still try and take part in their beliefs such as the sabbath and look to their god for guidance and strength. Without their hope and others kindness, I don’t think any family could have survived for so long.
My Real Name is Hanna is beautifully told, an intense survival story that will resonate with me for a long time. I don’t want to compare it to other historical fiction novels as I think this story is so unique especially because Masih shines light on the Ukrainian Jewish history which I don’t think has been pivotal for many world war 2 historical fiction novels in the past.
If you want to read a deeply moving story of a family’s courageous journey throughout world war 2 then I highly recommend this novel to you. You can pre order My Name is Hanna on Amazon Katie x
Who is Tara Masih?
Tara Lynn Masih grew up in the small harbor town of Northport, situated along the Long Island Sound. Much of her time was spent on the beaches and in the woods, and as a result her writing is often set within the framework of nature and place. She is editor of the acclaimed Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year) and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (a Skipping Stones Honor Award Book; an IBPA Benjamin Franklin silver medalist; a ForeWord Book of the Year); her story collection Where the Dog Star Never Glows was a National Best Books finalist. She is founding series editor of the annual Best Small Fictions anthology, and her first novel, My Real Name Is Hanna, is forthcoming Sept. 11 from Mandel Vilar Press. www.taramasih.com