Parallel lines never meet – unless a lodestone of overwhelming force pulls them inexorably toward each other. At that pivotal point of attraction, of course, the two lines cease to be parallel. As we ultimately see, when they converge, they become integral components in a reconfigured aesthetic of movement and geometry.
Such is the literary framework of Come Back For Me. In her praiseworthy debut novel, Sharon Hart-Green cleverly and thoughtfully provides the reader with two tandem stories that meet at a heartbreaking bridging point of history and family. The meeting point is transformative for the characters of the story and deeply affecting for the reader.
One story chronicles Suzy Kohn’s key transitional years, from high school to university, in Toronto. Her Jewish parents escaped the Nazis’ frenzied efforts to annihilate the Jews of Europe during the Second World War and the shadow of the Holocaust falls upon the family in every aspect of their lives. Throughout the novel, the author skillfully teases out the myriad ways this is so, especially in the often-trying relationship between Suzy and her parents. Readers who are children of Holocaust survivors, or of immigrants from the postwar period, will likely relate to many of the scenes that Hart-Green depicts.
The second story is that of Artur Mandelkorn. He and his younger sister, Manya, are separated from their family in the early days of the roundup of Hungarian Jews by the Nazis in 1944. Soon, Artur and Manya are torn apart from each other, as well. The title of the book derives from Manya’s tearful plea to her adoring brother at that bleak, searing moment of separation to “come back” for her.
Artur’s promise to Manya is the radiating literary and moral centre of the story. The novel movingly details Artur’s expansive, determined search for Manya, even as he survives the war and rebuilds his life in Mandatory Palestine and the State of Israel.
The two stories are chronologically disparate. Artur’s story begins a quarter century before that of Suzy’s. But the two narratives catch up to one another and culminate in an ending that is gloriously redemptive.
In one key respect, Come Back For Me is a story about hope. How does one retain a sense of hope in the face of persecution, brutality, suffering and sorrow? Artur contends with this most elemental of existential dilemmas each day of his life, after the Nazis so brutally entered it. “Hope is never lost; it just migrates,” a caring rabbi tenderly advises Artur during yet another personal crucible through which Artur courageously passes. The travails of the individual are, of course, the embodiment of the larger, collective travails of the Jewish People.
Hart-Green’s considerable talents and abilities are on good display throughout. She successfully combines her knowledge of Jewish life, as well as Yiddish and Hebrew literature, with a pleasurable literary deftness. She is a master of imagery, providing on nearly every page, through metaphor and simile, a nuanced understanding of the larger point she is trying to make.
One example is when Artur describes his emotions after he receives some particularly bad news: “I sat there immobilized, as lifeless as a limb torn from a body. There was no pain, only numbness.” Another example occurs when Artur describes how he felt as he was relating the fate of his parents: “She listened so intently to every word that I said that I felt I was placing my soul in her lap. And, to my surprise, it felt very good. Very good.”
Hart-Green confronts head-on the timelessly relevant issues of Jewish peoplehood, belonging and identity. Artur explains himself in this way: “I consider myself to be a fairly typical example of a Jew – industrious, a bit creative, with a good dose of tenacity thrown in. That’s the magic ingredient.” Then Artur elaborates further:
“Our stubbornness can be put to bad use, but it can also be used for good. I sometimes wonder if that’s what being ‘chosen’ means – being loyal to a goal that all others have abandoned. Just think about it. To cling to a nation that is half-dead takes stubborn determination, beyond all sense and reason. How else can you explain Jewish survival after thousands of years of dispersion?
“Soon after the war ended, I often thought – why not give up and blend in? Be like everybody else. But I eventually looked around and realized that there is no such thing as ‘everybody else.’ It’s a delusion. Everyone belongs to a group, a tribe, a family. I can live a relatively ‘normal’ life … because I know where I belong. I don’t just live among people but with people. We share a common goal.… It’s just being together – working, striving, building something out of nothing.”
The author’s observations, articulated through the mouths of her characters, are thoughtful and at times provocative. She is trying to address a younger generation of Jews who, like Suzy, are disquietingly removed from their people and their heritage.
The two tandem stories are not of equal literary weight. Though slighter, Suzy’s story is vital to the author’s purpose. With perfect tone and timbre, Hart-Green recreates the language, thoughts, anxieties and moods of the late teenage years. Come Back For Me cannot be categorized as young adult literature, for it is a mature, painful meditation on the power of memory, responsibility, commitment and humanity in overcoming the consequences of extreme barbarity.
But to Hart-Green’s credit, it can be a departure point for some young adults in the difficult, though important, intellectual and emotional challenge of reading about the Holocaust, the relationship of young Jews to their heritage and the relationship of their heritage to the re-established, modern State of Israel.