Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Letters from Rifka

Letters from Rifka

Karen Hesse
Historical Fiction
For ages 10 and up
Penguin, 1993   ISBN: 0140363912

Rifka and her family have to leave everything that they have ever known because the Russian army is sure to come for Rifka’s brother who deserted. At this time in Russia, many of the young Jewish boys are forced to join the Tsar’s army whether they wanted to or not. Jews are treated with great cruelty and oppression, and Rifka’s family has decided that the time has come to try to seek a new life elsewhere – they are going to go to America.

Thus begins a journey full of fear, worry, and hardship. There are borders to cross into countries that are hostile to Jewish refugees,. Everything is made much worse when everyone in the family, except Rifka’s big clumsy brother Saul, gets typhus. It is a miserable time, and Rifka hates being separated from her parents when they are put in a hospital.

She has to face an even greater separation however when it is discovered that she cannot go to America with her family because she has ringworm. The shipping companies simply will not carry a passenger with the disease because the passenger will only be sent back by the American immigration officials. There is nothing to be done, Rifka must stay in Belgium until she is cured of the disease. Rifka’s family will go on to America without her.

Just when Rifka’s troubles should be over she finds herself facing new hardships. Always, to help her, she has the book of Pushkin poems that her beloved cousin Tovah gave her. Indeed it is within the pages of this beloved volume that Rifka writes letters to Tovah, letters describing her experiences and her feelings.

In this book Karen Hesse beautifully captures the horrors of what it was like to be a Jew living in Russia and Eastern Europe during the early part of the twentieth century. We can see what it was that made people run from such countries - what drove them to the shores of North America in such huge numbers. With simple and carefully chosen words, Rifka’s letters reveal her inner most heart and her fears, and they give us a startling and sometimes disturbing picture of her ordeals.

This book is especially powerful because, as the author tells us in the beginning of the story in her “Author’s Note,” Rifka’s experiences are largely based on the life of one of her own relatives. As Karen Hesse puts it “…this story is…Aunt Lucy’s story.”