Jan. 23—What happened to the kids who had to start new lives because their families fled Germany when the Nazis came to power?
"The Boy With Four Names," by Doris Rubenstein (iUniverse, $13.99), is a young adult novel based on a real-life family the author met when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador from 1971-73 and became familiar with the Jewish community there, especially the family of Enrique Cohen whose family left Germany when he was a toddler.
The book is a reminder of the days leading up to World War II when millions of Jews were killed at death camps such as Auschwitz and we are highlighting it today in advance of Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27.
It's probable not many North Americans know that the little South American country of Ecuador, nestled between Colombia to the north and Peru, with a 1930s population of little more than 2 million, welcomed some 3,000 Jews when other countries, including the United States, were limiting their numbers or refusing admittance.
Enrique, the boy with four names, was born Enrico, which is Italian for Heinrich, because his parents admired the German poet Heinrich Heine. Then his name became Enrique, Spanish for Enrico. When health problems plagued him he was sent to his paternal grandmother in Ohio, where he was Hank. And when he returned to Ecuador to make his Bar Mitzvah, his Hebrew name was Tzvi ben Avraham.
The novel begins in the mid-1930s with the boy's father, Abraham Cohen, fleeing Germany because he accidentally killed a policeman who wore a Nazi pin. He got out of the country as fast as possible with help from relatives in Holland and an old friend in Milan, Italy. He and his wife, Herta Sauer, ended up working and living on a grape farm in Italy. Herta longed for her parents and hatched a plan to smuggle them out of Germany in huge wine vats. Abie was terrified of returned to Germany, where he would surely be killed, but he did it and in an exciting chapter, the Sauers were reunited with their daughter.
This story shows the resilience of kids, even when they move to a country in which they can't communicate. Enrique tried to learn the language and participate in boys' sports whether in Italy or the U.S. He seems like he was a happy kid, but in the background were letters and tears as his family learned of loved ones who were never heard from again.
This is a fast-paced, easy-to-read story that would make a good jumping-off point for a school project; there are many stories on the internet about Jews in Ecuador. Two things might need to be explained to younger readers; Herta's water breaks when she's ready to have the baby, and why it was important for 12-year-old Enrique to have a circumcision in the hospital prior to his Bar Mitzvah.
The author's previous books, "You're Always Welcome at the Temple of Aaron" and "The Journey of a Dollar" were award-winners.