Esfir Is Alive — Historical Novel


Esfir Is Alive

A Novel Inspired by a True Story


* 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award Finalist

* 2017 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards, bronze       winner, Young Adult, Historical Fiction


Esfir Manevich is a young Jewish girl who lives in the Polish town of Kobrin in 1936. Facing anti-Semitism in public school, Esfir moves in with her charming aunt who runs a boardinghouse in the bustling city of Brest. Being younger than the other boarders, Esfir struggles to find a place in her new life, all the while worrying about her diminishing role in the family she left behind.

As the years pass, Esfir experiences the bombing of her hometown during the German invasion of 1939. When the Russians overtake the area, Esfir sees many of her socialist relatives and friends become disillusioned by the harsh restrictions. During the German occupation, Esfir and her family are enclosed in a ghetto where they develop heartbreaking methods of survival.

In the summer of 1942, shortly before Esfir’s thirteenth birthday, the ghetto is liquidated and the inhabitants are forced onto cattle cars destined for the killing fields―and Esfir must face unimaginable horror.

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Esfir Is Alive: Book Trailer


Book Reviews

"In 1942, the forest of Brona Gora, Belarus, saw the mass execution of over 50,000 Jews. A lone survivor, sensitive and earnest twelve-year-old Esfir, recounts the emotional journey that brought her there and the warring hope and pain found in the aftermath. Based on the true story of the German and Russian occupation of Poland during WWII and the real life of Esfir Manevich, Andrea Simon’s Esfir Is Alive is the haunting tale of one girl’s struggle 'to make sense of senseless things.'

Beginning in November of 1936 when she is just seven years old, the story’s historical facts and fiction merge to create Esfir’s world, a colorful place that slowly turns dark and gray when bullying in the schoolyard gradually escalates to riots on the streets, forced labor in the ghettos, and the eventual horrific massacres that marked the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.

A story rife with tragedy, Esfir’s focus on family and friends sees the seasons pass through the observance of holidays and traditions, and as Esfir grows and looks to those around her for guidance, and Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and even Lag b’Omer can no longer be openly acknowledged, she focuses on celebrating the spirit of those she has loved and lost by remembering their passion and compassion, their intelligence and humor, and their quirks and foibles, but most of all, their zest for life.

A personal story for Andrea Simon, who can trace her ancestry to near Esfir’s quaint but war-torn Belorussian village, there is heartbreak and hope, along with the determination that those lost will never be forgotten."
— Pallas Gates McCorquodale, Foreword Reviews

"Inspired by a three-paragraph testimony from the sole survivor of the Nazi-administered Brona Gora killings of 1942, Simon weaves a diaristic account of one girl, Esfir Manevich, and her impossible journey. Divided into three parts, the narrative reveals the ever-escalating hardships of Esfir’s daily life, from vicious school bullies and the unexpected death of her father to horrific pogroms and the eventual liquidation of her hometown of Kobrin, Poland. Through the earnestly observant Esfir, Simon also ruminates over religious faith and the dominant political movements of the period. The journal format, often infused with charts, excerpts of Jewish literature, and Yiddish adages, is employed to full effect. Never didactic, Simon’s characters—the charismatic Aunt Perl, astute Ida, and unprejudiced Ania—are refreshingly complex, and the prose, whether depicting a beloved doll or coffinlike cattle cars, remains unflinching and precise. Though its scope is ambitious (a span of approximately 16 years), this story, like Esfir herself, is achingly alive. An appended Yiddish glossary and discussion questions further enhance the text."
— Briana Shemroske, Booklist

"Once again Andrea Simon has given us a work of power and poignancy as she narrates the story of a young girl caught up in turmoil of pre-war Poland and then in the dual occupations of the Soviet Union and of Nazi Germany. Her writing is crisp and moving. Her grasp of history is assured and her sensitivity to the historical turmoil as experienced by a young girl is pronounced. Enter this world of darkness, grief and loss with young Esfir and you will experience the depth of evil and the travails of human endurance. The power with which Andrea Simon brings Esfir and her era back to life will only magnify your sense of loss for the world that was and the people who were murdered in the Shoah."
— Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, California; former President of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation

"The shock and panic of the first day of the Nazi bombing on September 1, 1939 escalate in an ever more taut recitation of the descent into horror, degradation and murder. The child becomes witness, participant, and finally victim of the Nazi occupation and eventual genocide of the Jewish population surrounding Brest Litovsk and Kobrin.

In little Esfir, a lovable girl passionate about her friends, longing for the love of her remote father, anxious to please and to understand the incomprehensible, Simon builds a complex protagonist who loses everything and everybody in her world. She must watch her mother lose her mind from the suffering in the ghetto, witness her elderly grandfather brutalized by Nazis, and finally herself be stripped naked and shot into a mass grave.

As they tumble into the pit she is unable to catch her sister’s hand, whose terror-stricken eyes seek out Esfir’s: “The hole inside me is still as deep as that pit… My sorrow flows through that hole, never-ending. By happenstance, I had survived. Me, a nothing, a nobody.”

Simon has created a three-dimensional tragic heroine who herself is spared, but who stands for all the others who perished."
— Helen Schary Motro, ESRA Magazine

"Simon also wrote about something I have never actually read before in the context of the Holocaust: the growing Zionist movement. She explained it so clearly and divided the different political Jewish groups extremely well. I felt that I was learning about the Jewish identity in the twentieth century well --- more than I was expecting.... She did it sensibly, introducing characters like Mendel, a young Zionist who ends up making the journey to Mandatory Palestine. She also shows how difficult it was to be a Zionist during that time.... Putting myself in the place of a child who went through the emotionally and physically traumatizing experience really got the story across effectively.

I was shocked by the contents of this novel, not because anything was heavily described and gruesome (although some scenes were really shocking, namely the rape of a child being briefly described), but actually because I allowed myself to forget that we really did go through a time where all of this was okay. The struggles Esfir has to go through, especially in the latter parts of the book, are something that no child should ever go through. Simon really showed the brutal dehumanizing effect that World War II had on children living through it; Esfir never got to have a childhood.

ESFIR IS ALIVE is definitely an interesting novel to read for anyone interested in learning about Jewish history through a young Polish Jew’s eyes. Telling the story through the eyes of a child brings an incredible sensibility to the story, and makes the horrid reality of the Holocaust understandable for anyone to see."
— Rachel De Paz, Teenreads

"Esfir is an extraordinary girl who has escaped death many times. Esfir’s family–mother, father, two sisters, and brother–live in late 1930s Poland. Suddenly, the Germans have taken control of Poland. Jewish and Polish people can’t own shops or work. Esfir suffers great loss and tragedy, but that was nothing, for what is to come was far worse.

This book overall was a great book. It was very well written.... This book is depressing, but it was the reality of World War II. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in World War II. Children under the age of twelve might find this book too sad. The book is a great size and has an awesome storyline. I like the other languages occasionally thrown in the book. In the second half of the book I was on the edge of my seat and couldn’t put the book down."
— Charlie, age 12, five-star review, Kids' BookBuzz

"Andrea Simon fictionalizes the drama of her [Esfir's] life, re-creating her early childhood in the vibrant Jewish community of Kobrin, her exciting experiences among her aunt’s young boarders in Brest, her introduction to the fierce Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the joyous celebrations of Hanukkah and Pesach even in the face of covert and overt anti-Semitism. The graphic descriptions of Nazi cruelty and the shooting massacres of entire communities are deeply disturbing but alleviated by Esfir’s miraculous post-war reunion with her brother in the Land of Israel, where she can at last proclaim 'Esfir Is Alive.' " — Gloria Goldreich, Hadassah Magazine

“Told in the first person, the majority of the book takes place before the family is forced into the ghetto, and vivid details give an absorbing picture of Jewish life in Polish towns in the late ´30s. Some of the minor characters were drawn from the author’s own family…. I was glad to learn about a facet of the Shoah I knew little about.” — B.J. Sedlock, Historical Novels Review

"Andrea Simon expertly shows the steady progression of hatred that the Jewish people learned to live with and adapt to during one of the most terrible points of human history when the most merciless crimes were committed. She gives one more voice to those who were forced into silence."
— Angie Ayala Fiscus, Tribune-Star

"Using a creative, but heart wrenching technique, Simon assumes the persona of Esfir and bears witness for her, in a history that includes Simon's actual relatives from the same area. The idea is that they most certainly all knew one another. Through the author's careful research, this story of the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a young girl in a community of Polish Jews comes to life infusing an added historical perspective of the Holocaust .... Esfir is Alive is a meaningful read for both adolescent and adult scholars of the Holocaust. Book groups will appreciate the questions at the back of the book or the glossary of Yiddish words and phrases. The title invokes a hope that remains with the reader throughout, even in the bleakest moments while the text demonstrates a character's resilience in the face of unimaginable loss, disruption, and pain. Ms. Simon's account, having been inspired by her 2002 memoir entitled Bashert: A Grand Daugher's Holocaust Quest, presents a deeper development of many of the real-life characters who formed a part of her Belorussian village and surrounding areas. The reader will come to love Esfir and feel deeply her sense of loss at every turn." — Shawn LaTorre, Story Book Reviews

Full Story Circle Review


"Andrea Simon’s Esfir Is Alive will stay with me for a long time to come. Its poignant portrait of a young girl coming of age in a time of horror is balanced with an authentic depiction of her everyday life in 1930s Poland, with a child’s dreams, concerns, fears and observations. Simon skillfully weaves in the backdrop of political, social and religious conditions, deepening the readers' understanding of the complex nightmare that Esfir survives. Weaving a true story into gripping historical fiction is a skill, and Andrea Simon has mastered it." — Barbara Stark-Nemon, author of Even in Darkness

"This novel admirably and passionately attempts to reconstruct the lost world of pre-war Jewish Poland and the experiences of real-life survivor Esfir Manevich."
— Barbara Krasner, AJL Reviews 

“[Readers] will stay rooted in the everyday triumphs and growing pains of the narrator’s development from little girl to young lady, all while becoming more familiar with the facets of pre-Holocaust existence not often taught in class.”  — Brittany Drehobl, School Library Journal

"Esfir Is Alive is a powerful work—haunting, grave, compelling and terribly evocative. Esfir’s account of her journey toward adulthood, set against the events of WWII in the area now known as Belarus, is real and heartbreaking. The novel is full of vivid and quirky characters the reader cares about. The story is grounded in wonderful specificities about the characters’ lives. As a result, you completely believe in these people and weep over the tragedy that befalls them. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, and like all great literature, Esfir Is Alive is a story that conveys universality and truth." 
— Katherine Kirkpatrick, author of Between Two Worlds and The Snow Baby