Feb 13, 2009

We Are on Our Own by Miriam Katin

We Are On Our Own is a memoir about how Miriam Katin and her mother survived the Holocaust by faking their own deaths and leaving Budapest disguised as a rural worker and her young child. Her mother, Esther, is forced to leave everything she owns behind and flee to avoid deportation. Together they roam the countryside, finding work, food and shelter wherever they can, always with the German soldiers only a few steps behind.

We Are On Our Own is an amazing book. It’s actually not as difficult to read as most Holocaust stories. And since this probably sounds completely wrong, let me explain better: I don’t mean it at all dismissively, and I don’t mean to equate “difficult” with “worthy”. What I mean is that this is essentially a survival story. Lisa (the book is subtitled “a memoir”, but this is the name of the little girl in the story) and her mother go through a lot, and their story is sad and moving and dark. But because the perspective is that of a very young child, we are spared some of the horrifying details that can often be found in Holocaust stories. Lisa’s understanding of what’s going on is imperfect, which actually makes the story even more moving at times. For example, before they leave Budapest, a new law is passed forbidding Jews from owning pets, and Lisa cannot understand why her dog Rexy is taken away from her.

One of my favourite things about We Are On Our Own was exactly how well it captured a young child’s perspective. I can’t think of all that many books that achieve this. Very often in stories told from a child’s perspective you can feel the perspective of the adult trying to remember lurking behind the pages. Miriam Katin wrote this book as an adult, so obviously we have that here too, but I found that most of the time the adult was invisible, and the way Lisa understood the world as a little girl permeated the book.

The art in We Are On Our Own is just gorgeous. The pencil drawings are black and white for the parts that take place during the war, and colour for the non-war scenes. I think this worked very well.

The book has an afterword where Katin talks a little bit about the inner conflict caused by her having lost her faith but still wanting to bring up her children with a Jewish cultural identity. I was very interested in this—so much that it made me wish the book had explored this question more. I understand why it didn’t, though. This is the story of how she survived as a child, and these are issues she had to deal with as an adult. Still, I’d love to read a book about her life after the war.

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Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books
The Zen Leaf

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. I am making a note of this graphic novel. This year I am reading MAUSE I AND MOUSE II and PERSEPOLIS which seems very interesting.

    Have a nice week-end and Valentine

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. It is one of only 2 graphic novels that I've read, and I thought it was very well done.

  3. That book looks and sounds amazing.

  4. Nymeth, this is only tangentially related, but Peter Rozovsky at Detectives Beyond Borders recently linked to a free issue of a fine graphic novel called Ex Machina. It's worth a read.

  5. Is this a true memoir or a fictional one (like Memoirs of a Geisha)? (I'm not trying to be disrespectful of the people who wrote it by asking, I just wasn't sure.)

  6. Looks like a fantastic graphic novel. Not heard of it before, but it's definitely going on the wishlist!

  7. I know what you mean about the afterword...I really wanted to know more. Wouldn't you just love to meet her?

  8. I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I read it last year and loved it.

  9. Those panels are gorgeous, so much detail. And I really like the effect of using b&w for past, color for future, it would create such an idea of memory.

  10. I must try and read this this year!

  11. this sounds very good! I hadnt heard of this one before. the illustrations look amazing.


  12. I remember reading Dewey's review for this....thanks for bringing it to my attention again. It looks like an interesting one.

  13. Oh, I really like these illustrations - such wonderful depth to them.

  14. awww I've seen this on Dewey's and I added it on my list immediately!
    It really sounds like a wonderful read, I love when books manage to achieve a genuine child's perspective.

  15. You could make non-believers like myself read graphic novels with reviews like this one, Nymeth! I'll see if it's in my library....maybe I'll start a bad bloggers just for library books :-D

  16. Madeleine: Maus and Persepolis are excellent too. I hope you're having a great Valentine's Day and weekend too :)

    Heather: Yes, very well done indeed.

    Bermudaonion: I really think it is!

    Loren Eaton: Ooh, free comic! Thank you!

    Amanda: Don't worry, I know you don't mean it disrespectfully. Even though she changed the names, it's a real memoir. She explains in the afterword that her mother, now an elderly lady, was a bit nervous that she was writing their story...even after all these years, she was still afraid there might be consequences.

    Bart, I hope you get it eventually. I think you'd enjoy it.

    Debi: I would, but I'd also be thrilled if she wrote a book after her life in America after the War. It'd be excellent for sure!

    Vasilly: it's an amazing book, isn't it? Did you review it? I couldn't find a post of yours via google reader search.

    Joanne: Yes, it worked really well. And I just loved all the detail.

    Kailana: I hope you manage to get a hold of it!

    Naida: It's a beautiful book.

    Amy: Her review was the reason why I got it (this is true of so many books).

    celiaspowells: Yes! And they go so well with the story.

    Valentina: I love it too!

    Susan: You're making me want to make converting you my Official Mission, you non-believer :P Hopefully Castle Waiting will do the job.

  17. oh, not you too! lol...I'm just going to have to suck it up and buy this one. I've been trying to get it, but my library doesn't have it :( And the only library that does says that it's status is "lost" :( I'm sure it's not lost..the borrower probably just kept it :p I can see why with that amazing art!

  18. Got it. I think I'm going to exchange one of the others on my graphic novel challenge for this one. The illustrations are gorgeous and it sounds interesting.

  19. This does sound good - and I'm glad you made that distinction about it not being as difficult to read as some - I am a total wimp about these things, as they can affect me so strongly and leave me upset and depressed for a long time. The artwork is lovely!

  20. This one sounds good, Nymeth. I'm not a fan of graphic novel, mainly because they cost quite a bit here in Malaysia. But I like the sound of this one.

  21. Wow, I never knew that they took pets away. Obviously that pales in comparison to everything else they did, but still...

  22. Chris: lol, yeah...one can almost understand the library thieves :P

    Amanda, I hope you enjoy it more than the Niffenegger book :P And I think you will.

    Darla: This is a dark book too, but all ends well, so to speak, so I think you'd be okay!

    Alice: I know...it's the same in Portugal. All the ones I get I order online.

    Lenore: I know what you mean. I guess it's not often mentioned because like you said it pales in comparison to all the killings, but it makes sense that a young child would remember it so well. And it's an act of such senseless cruelty (not that everything else wasn't too, but you know what I mean).

  23. The illustrations look beautiful. I've really been enjoying graphic novels a lot in the past couple of years so this is one I'll be looking for!

  24. Love the illustrations it sounds like an interesting read from a unique perspective.

  25. Sounds good! I first came across this book via Dewey's review and now you've really made me want to pick up this book after reading your review, Nymeth! :)

  26. Iliana, I really think you'd like this one.

    Ladytink: indeed!

    Melody: She's the reason why so many of us discovered this. As well as countless other great books.

  27. Another great book for the WWII challenge! Could I link to this one as well?

    I've never read a graphic novel, and I think this might be my first. Thanks for the review!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  28. Anna, yes, you're more than welcome to link to them book :) And this would be a great introduction to the medium.


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