I am beginning to realize that freedom means you can be who you are meant to be, whatever that is. . . That breathing without any thought to it is a gift. Now, I think about breathing all the time. What is it like to take your last breath? What if the sound of it gave you away?
Tara Lynn Masih has dedicated five years of research and writing into her first novel—My Real Name Is Hanna. The narrative is set in the years of World War II in which fifty-six countries were involved between 1939 and 1945. At the heart of the disputes were rising nationalism, fascism, and unresolved territorial boundaries. Germany and Italy were seeking to control Europe, and in Asia, Japan was expanding its territory by invading the Pacific. From German U-boats and Panzers to Japanese Kamikaze and American atomic bombs destruction and death ruled. Estimates vary about the number of lives lost during the war, but the consensus is that roughly 62 million people died, including the estimated 12 million in the Holocaust. The historical narrative of World War II is distorted with every generation, but one thing remains constant—the stories of the people who survived it.
Set in Eastern Europe, in an area that once was a part of Poland, Masih’s YA novel is the story of Hanna Slivka—a mother who reveals to her children why her real name is not the name they know her by, and why it has been kept secret. The author was inspired by the powerful matriarch, Esther Stermer, and her extended family along with four other families, who sought refuge in the caves of Ukraine during the Holocaust. In the novel, war has come to the untroubled home of the 14-year-old Hanna, in her hometown of Kwasova. Being Jewish, she was used to the occasional name-calling, but she could count on her brother Symon to stand up for her. With the arrival of the war, her life becomes more complicated. Her freedoms, as well as her family’s, are increasingly restricted until they diminish.
Masih crafts the story in such a way that you paint pictures on the blank canvas inside your head. I could visualize Hanna and her family fleeing and hiding in the forest outside their shtetele. I could hear their footsteps as they walked in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows. I, too, was transported there.
My Real Name Is Hanna is a moving novel that takes you through a dark chapter in Ukrainian history. It is a journey that will lead you from the depths of calamitous sadness to the heights of ethereal joy. It is a story that teaches you how life should be: “being able to move about in space with no chains or fears or limits.”
Her name is Hanna.
And this is her story.
Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University. She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria. Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands. Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015. When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.