When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler

Three Lives. One Photograph

When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler is a powerful historical children’s novel, suitable for ages twelve years and over. Even as an adult, I found this book an incredibly moving read about a time when Europe was veiled by a terrible dark cloud.

The novel opens in Vienna in 1936 as we meet three nine year old friends, Max, Elsa and Leo, two of whom are Jewish. After one perfect day, captured on a photo, the three vow to be best friends forever.

When The World Was Ours is the story of their individual, and collective, war. Each one had different wartime experiences. Their stories are told in the first person from the three alternating points of view.

This is a powerful tale that is grounded in fact. This is a book that must be read in memory of the six million innocents who perished. May they never be forgotten.

As Hitler’s power increased, childhood was left behind. The three friends who vowed to be together forever, separated by the ravings of a madman.

We see the brainwashing of the one whose father was a Nazi. Never having fitted in at school, he liked the rules and regulations of the Hitler youth as he strived to be the best. “They were a unit with one voice, one mind, one aim: to be perfect Nazis.” He loses himself within the movement but just occasionally his conscience pricks, and we glimpse a glimmer of humanity.

There is a war that is endured in the ghetto and then the camps, ending up in Auschwitz. Hope keeps one going. When hope is extinguished, a flame almost goes out until a flicker re-appears- and there is a very beautiful and poignant scene from the author, that cannot fail to touch the reader’s heart.

Finally, the third war sees the father taken early on. The head of the household is passed downwards with the instructions to ‘look after your mama and get out of Germany.’ This involves a fight but we see that not all Germans Nazis, as a desperate youthful Jewish voice declares “Don’t you know how wrong you are?… Do you not realise your enemy is my enemy too?”

All the characters were well drawn, likable and realistic. We see the dreadful acts of man’s inhumanity to man. And we see that even in Auschwitz, people retain their humanity. The Nazis can take the freedoms but they cannot take the human heart and soul.

One photograph. Three copies in 1936. Three lives united. Three lives torn apart. What and who will remain in 1945?

When The World Was Ours is powerful and heartbreaking. I think every person should read this book, regardless of their age. It is in the book’s simplicity that the horrors are magnified. Never again must these events happen.

I will leave you with the quote that I found the most powerful:

“It wasn’t work that set you free. It was love.”


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