They Went Left, by bestselling author Monica Hesse, is the heartbreaking story of a girl, freed from a Nazi concentration camp, intent on finding her younger brother. It was one of my most anticipated books of 2020 and surpassed my high expectations.
From the publisher:
Germany, 1945. The soldiers who liberated the Gross-Rosen concentration camp said the war was over, but nothing feels over to eighteen-year-old Zofia Lederman. Her body has barely begun to heal, her mind feels broken. And her life is completely shattered: Three years ago, she and her younger brother, Abek, were the only members of their family to be sent to the right, away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Everyone else–her parents, her grandmother, radiant Aunt Maja–they went left.
Zofia’s last words to her brother were a promise: Abek to Zofia, A to Z. When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. Now her journey to fulfill that vow takes her through Poland and Germany, and into a displaced persons camp where everyone she meets is trying to piece together a future from a painful past: Miriam, desperately searching for the twin she was separated from after they survived medical experimentation. Breine, a former heiress, who now longs only for a simple wedding with her new fiancé. And Josef, who guards his past behind a wall of secrets, and is beautiful and strange and magnetic all at once.
But the deeper Zofia digs, the more impossible her search seems. How can she find one boy in a sea of the missing? In the rubble of a broken continent, Zofia must delve into a mystery whose answers could break her–or help her rebuild her world.
They Went Left is the third of Hesse’s books set in and around World War Two. Last year, I read and loved Girl in the Blue Coat, so I was eagerly awaiting this book’s release.
Hesse does a great job of focusing on one small story set in a much larger context: one teenage girl, searching for her younger brother, who could be anywhere in post-war Europe. Through Zofia’s story, we get a tiny glimpse at the chaos left behind after the defeat of Germany. Critical infrastructure is destroyed. Surviving family members are scattered across hundreds of miles, in hospitals and refugee camps, unsure how to locate each other. Many survivors are left as the only remaining member of their family.
We also being to see what life will look like in eastern Europe for nations recovering from German occupation. The Nazis are gone, but anti-Semitism remains. Looming is the threat of rule by the Soviet Union, as the victorious war powers carve up the continent and stake their claims.
They Went Left is, at times, emotionally draining. We feel Zofia’s frustration as she perseveres in her search despite insurmountable odds. We cheer for the kindness of strangers along the way who help this determined girl, even while acknowledging the difficulty of her task.
Hesse builds several twists into They Went Left, and she holds the reveals until the end. Even though I had figured most of them out well before then, Hesse crafts an emotional punch that makes them land powerfully just the same.
I highly recommend They Went Left.