Monday, August 16, 2021

Book Review: We Share the Same Sky

By Jami Denison

It’s been 76 years since World War II ended, and for the Jewish people who survived those atrocities, time is growing short to make sure their stories are told. The accounts from concentration camps are particularly hard to receive, and particularly important to communicate. But not every Jewish person in Europe during the early 1940s went to a concentration camp, and their stories also need to be told.

Author Rachael Cerrotti grew up knowing that her grandmother, Hana, was in Europe during the war, and the details of her journeys across the continent before finally landing in the U.S. after the war. In 2009, Rachael, a college student and photojournalist, began to document Hana’s recollections of the war. When her grandmother died a year later, Rachael discovered Hana’s diary and photo albums of this crucial period. She decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps in Europe as a teenage girl, and later in America, documenting the entire journey. It was a project that ended up taking a decade.

At 21, Rachael began her journey in Israel, where teenage Hana had first intended to go when the troubles in Europe began. In her native Czechoslovakia, Hana joined a youth group that was learning how to farm in preparation for a move to Palestine. Instead, she ended up leaving Prague at age 14 to work at a farm in rural Denmark. In Israel, Racheal meets at Polish young man named Sergiusz, who becomes incredibly important to her personal story. She travels all around Europe, retracing Hana’s steps as the Nazis invaded countries in search of Jews. Then she returns to the U.S. and traces Hana’s path across the country, searching for a family to make her own. 

While I’ve read other memoirs that read like novels, We Share the Same Sky reads like an extended magazine article, and in places like a textbook. Rachael alternates between the voice of her grandmother preserved in diaries and letters, with her own experiences meeting the descendants of people who helped Hana survive. It’s an important testimony how a person’s snap decision—the offer of a hand or a room—can alter the trajectory of another person’s life.

Because of Rachael’s secondhand telling of her grandmother’s story, there’s more distance between the author and the events she describes than what is usually found in a memoir. Still, Rachael broaches on a subject not often explored in these memoirs: Mainly, the horrific treatment that Jews endured after the war. Left for dead in concentration camps, they returned home to find their families dead, their houses stolen, and no avenue by which they could retrieve their property. Hana went to the U.S. because she’d lost everything in Prague, and she received a cold reception in America as well. So many Jews were turned away from their home countries or other nations that they emigrated to Palestine. The U.N. granted a charter to the state of Israel to recognize that many of these immigrants were literally stateless. 

With a grandmother who dies in her own bed at age 85 and a writer who has nothing but good experiences on her journeys, We Share the Same Sky often feels like a travelogue. But Cerrotti delivers a gut punch near the end of the book that makes the memoir that much more poignant. 

I read We Share the Same Sky as Gaza once again exploded in violence. It’s a heartbreaking situation and one where folks committed to human rights can find themselves on opposite sides of an argument. But no discussion of Israel is complete without a reminder of why the modern state of Israel exists. 

Thanks to Blackstone Publishing for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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