Lillian Leyb, a young married woman, lived in a small town in rural Russia, and one night, in the war years, the town was subjected to a gruesome pogrom in which most of her family were butchered. She hid her 4-year-old daughter in the shed, and when she later looked for her, the daughter was gone. For days she searched for the child, and finally met up with an old, crazy aunt who was certain she had seen the girl dead, floating down the river. Therefore, since there was no reason to remain in this dangerous place, Lillian managed to get some money together for the treacherous trip across war-torn Europe and landed in New York City.
She found shelter with another aunt who rented out all the available space in her apartment, and eventually got a job as a seamstress for a theater company.
The handsome, leading man, who was also the son of the theater owner, took a fancy to her, and set up a small apartment for them, and Lillian was delighted to get out of the aunt’s crowded apartment. She had no illusions, and was determined to take every opportunity offered. But the son seldom came around. He was too busy with his activities with regard to the love that dare not say its name, in the park. However, his father fell in love with her and all was working out fairly well, until her cousin, newly immigrated, arrived to stay with her. Her cousin informed her that her daughter, presumed dead, was not. She had been found by neighbors, and whisked away to safety. The neighboring family then moved to Siberia, to Birobidzhan, which Russia was setting up as a region for Jewish migration.
The book then becomes the story of Lillian’s determination to go to Birobidzhan and find her daughter. It is a typical quest story, with a Holy Grail, tokens, tasks to do, and helpful and not-so-helpful people along the way.
It is a page turner, yes, and something of a love story, as well, but contrary to most love stories, this is not the focal point of the novel, simply a side effect of the quest. There is a happy ending of sorts, but it was touch and go for a while, and the reader would not have been surprised at a less convivial conclusion.
It is the story of struggle and survival, immigration, and that underlying unpleasantness of the horrors of WWII. Gee, what a good book!
A side note about Birobidzhan: In 1934 the Soviet Government established the Jewish Autonomous Region, popularly known as Birobidzhan, in a sparsely populated area some five thousand miles east of Moscow. Designated as the national homeland of Soviet Jewry, Birobidzhan was part of the Kremlin’s effort to create an alternative to Palestine.
The Jewish Autonomous Region still exists today, but despite its continued official status Jews are a small minority of the inhabitants of the region. . Sadly, the Kremlin’s efforts to create a socialist Jewish homeland failed.