Eva Traube Abrams, a semi-retired librarian in Florida, is shelving books one morning when her eyes lock on a photograph in a magazine lying open nearby. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.
The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer—but will she have the strength to revisit old memories and help reunite those lost during the war?
As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.
In 1942, Eva was a young lady working her way through school and towards a career in literature. As a Jew living in Paris, Eva never imagined her entire world would come crashing down in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, Eva’s world does upend the moment her father is arrested by the Nazis and she and her mother are forced to run.
Eva and her mother’s escape is nothing short of miraculous and it all has to do with their faked papers. The two women, both terrified and alone, find themselves in a small town within the so-called free zone. Hoping to rest and formulate a plan for rescuing her father, Eva nor her mother have any intention of staying in one place for too long. The risk is great, and the danger is very real. Though Eva doesn’t know it, word of her excellently forged documents has reached the local priest and when he finally approaches Eva, it is with an offer she finds both difficult to accept and difficult to refuse.
Forging papers in a Nazi-controlled world is madness, but Eva has the skill and along with her lone helper, Rémy they are able to churn out documents that will allow hidden Jewish children to get safely to Switzerland. The hours are long, the work is grueling, and the documents must be impeccable if they are to pass Nazi inspections. As if all this weren’t enough, Eva does this work knowing her mother disagrees with the assignment and routinely reminds Eva of her unfulfilled promise to recover her father. For Eva, the work is something she feels she must do, a task that is seemingly small but has tremendous ramifications for the children who are saved. Aside from the ever-present fear of being caught, Eva’s greatest concern is the children losing their own Jewish identity in order to make their escape possible.
As Eva’s life and work trudges on in the small town, the war rages on all around them and the threat of discovery is always looming. Rémy takes on a new and far more dangerous role within the resistance network and Eva welcomes a new partner. As the end of the war nears, the situation for Eva and her mother become desperate and desperate measures are taken. Outside of her mother, father, and Rémy, Eva’s greatest care is that the names of the children she has helped save never fall into the hands of the Nazis. To protect the book is to protect the innocent and Eva will do almost anything to ensure its safety.
The Bottom Line: Once again, I have found myself drawn to a Nazi-era/Holocaust read. Once again, I have myself sucked into one of Kristin Harmel’s exquisite reads and regret nothing. What a book this turned out to be! I found myself furiously turning pages as I became completely engrossed in this story. Eva’s life is extraordinary in the most horrific way, yet she deals with the challenges, the fear, the disapproval, and the danger with grace and humility. Eva’s journey is harrowing and as she comes ever closer to danger the pace of the book increases. Lest you think this is only a sad recounting of one family’s struggle during World War II, rest assured, there is an HEA and it is so worth all the danger, the fear, and the years that have passed. Once again, Harmel has woven a desperately beautiful story that reminds us of true evil and the wonderful bits of humanity, love, and grace that face down that evil and triumph over it.