I have to stop reading books about WWII in Europe. I am having vivid dreams of hiding and being hunted by Nazis, or in the case of my latest nightmare, chased by Chinese Youth Gangs. The last book I finished about the war was The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristen Harmel. Jews are being systematically executed by Nazis in Poland (and in fact over 80% of Polish Jews were murdered by the Nazis) so a few brave individuals hide in the forest. They are former accountants and shoemakers, and they don’t know anything about how to survive in the wild. Along comes Yona, stolen from her crib by Jerushka as a toddler, and taught the secrets of the forest and of listening to her intuition. She makes the decision to stay with the small group to help them survive. The book traces their years in hiding and the risks they face.
Yona does not know much about her past. All she has been told is that she was abducted from a wealthy family in Berlin. Jerushka teaches her about Judaism and all other religions, but makes it seem as if Yona is not Jewish. One question that is central to the book is “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Jews believe that if your mother was Jewish, you are also, regardless of the religion of your father. So is Judaism something that is carried in your blood? Only the blood coming from your mother? The Nazis believed in the blood theory and searched birth records, believing that even if you were raised Catholic but your mother was Jewish, you were considered the enemy, hunted, and eliminated.
I ask myself, what is different about Jewish blood? How can you measure how much of your blood is Jewish? Is it actually different from any other human’s blood? Aside from blood and the way one worships God, are there other ways one is considered Jewish? One of my customers was raised in Miami among Jews and knows more about Judaism than I do, yet she is not Jewish and I am. If the Nazis or the burgeoning groups of Anti-Semites rising today were hunting Jews, I would be a target.
Similarly, is the blood of a very fair African American any different from that of someone dark-skinned. Yet, the tone of skin can determine how a person is treated. Being Jewish over the ages has come to mean being treated with suspicion and often persecution, as has being Black, Muslim, and sometimes even Catholic. But why? How does being Jewish, for example, make a person different even if you are not a practicing Jew?
The other issue that comes up in the book is what does belonging to a group look like? Because Yona doesn’t know what her religion is, hasn’t felt the pain of persecution in the same way the Jews have, she feels as if she is not a real member of the group in the forest. She lives with them, guides them, and teaches them what they must know to survive, but some of the members of the group make her feel like an outsider. She was raised alone in the forest with only Jerushka, so she doesn’t know what it feels like to be part of a group, but continuously questions her membership.