One knock at the door, and Stefania has a choice to make…
It is 1943, and for four years, sixteen-year-old Stefania has been working for the Diamant family in their grocery store in Przemsyl, Poland, singing her way into their lives and hearts. She has even made a promise to one of their sons, Izio — a betrothal they must keep secret since she is Catholic and the Diamants are Jewish.
But everything changes when the German army invades Przemsyl. The Diamants are forced into the ghetto, and Stefania is alone in an occupied city, the only one left to care for Helena, her six-year-old sister. And then comes the knock at the door. Izio’s brother Max has jumped from the train headed to a death camp. Stefania and Helena make the extraordinary decision to hide Max, and eventually twelve more Jews. Then they must wait, every day, for the next knock at the door, the one that will mean death. When the knock finally comes, it is two Nazi officers, requisitioning Stefania’s house for the German army.
With two Nazis below, thirteen hidden Jews above, and a little sister by her side, Stefania has one more excruciating choice to make.
Considering how much WWII historical fiction I’ve read, I’m always impressed when an author finds a unique point of view. This narrative is based on the true story of Stefania Podgórska and her actions as a teenager living in Poland during the war.
Leading up to the war, Stefania worked in a small store owned by a Jewish family. She is almost adopted by this family, having left her own living on their farm outside of the city. When the Nazi propaganda starts to seep into the city to sow discord and discrimination, Stefania just doesn’t understand. She has lived with this family, felt accepted and loved by them, and doesn’t accept that their beliefs make them lesser, and so she does what she can to help them without really considering the consequences. However, as the war continues, the stakes become higher and Stefania becomes acutely aware of the risk she is taking by supporting her adopted family while trying to care for her younger sister.
The writing style is very simple which I think some people found problematic. On the other hand, I found that this allowed almost for the story to tell itself, the atrocities and horrific events jumped off the page, unobstructed by prose or metaphorical writing. It reads almost like a teenage diary; Stefania is young and sheltered at the start of the war, it wouldn’t make sense for the writing to be more complex. It also made it incredibly easy to read despite what was actually happening in the story.
I appreciated that Cameron included information and pictures about the real Stefania Podgórska at the end. I felt very invested in her story and it was nice to learn more about her life at the conclusion as it added to my overall enjoyment of the story and this new perspective.