This book is a memoir/biography as the author tells not only her story, but the discovery that her parents were Jewish and the impact that has on her life.
Helen always felt that something was off with her family and after a little digging and investigating, she and her sister discover that their Catholic parents were actually Jewish. Startled by this discovery, Helen begins researching places where her parents grew up and talking with people who knew them, desperate for the whole story of her parents' past, a past which neither will talk about. Then, one Fourth of July, her mother divulges most of her past but refuses to speak more of it. Aside from the stories of growing up in Poland before the war, she tells of how her sister Zosia went to Rome and fell in love with a government official and the two had to lie about her religion so they could get married. With that new identity and Zosia's beauty, she was able to "work the system" once the war becomes more serious, and helps her parents in their war torn home. One way she did this was by giving her sister (Batya - Helen's mother) her own identity - a Catholic girl named Maria who worked as a translator for the Italians. Just as easily as Batya became Maria, she became a young soldier trying leave Poland and escape to Italy. As Batya tries to survive Poland, Helen's father tries to survive jail in Siberia. Her mother and father had met long before the war and fell in love but were separated and then reunited after years of struggles and impossible odds.
Many situations happen to the families during the war (far too many to address here). Even though we know they end up "happily ever after" you fear what's going to happen to them next. I have to admit that this isn't the typical image of the Holocaust. It's focused very little on concentration camps and gas chambers, but more on the struggles at home and the means of avoiding detection without the "Anne Frank method" of hiding. Her father seemed to have the "typical experience" but little was focused on his struggles and I wish there had been more. It was really interesting the lengths that they went to survive and the affect it had on Batya and how it affected her identity to the point that she and her sister don't even remember what her real name was. You can't help but question, though, why Helen pushed so hard to know the truth when she knew talking about it upset her parents. They don't support this novel and it seems selfish to put them through it all. A lot of it has to do with identity and coming clean - the author also struggled with telling her parents that she's a lesbian - but does anyone have the right to force someone to relive that horrible experience if they've lived the most of their lives trying to forget? One thing I didn't like about this novel was how removed it felt - it's a person telling another person's story. Since she doesn't know all of the details, she had to embellish a bit, and sometimes you only get snippets of the experience. That's the struggle with telling someone else's story, though, especially when they're not sharing everything.
It was definitely an interesting story. Some of the young adult appeal is hard to see since initially it seems like the main character is Helen who is an adult. In reality, though, the story is about Batya and her struggles starting when she was a teen and going into her twenties. Sometimes, though, it's hard to see the people at that age or to remember how fast people had to grow up during those times.