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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
We Were Not Like Other People
by Ephraim Sevela
Age Range: 14+
Spanning six years and a distance from Siberia to Germany, the nameless nine-year-old Jewish narrator's life is shattered when his Red Army cavalry officer father is taken away during Stalin's purges of 1937. He becomes separated from his mother and sister as they seek refuge with his Aunt, and many years of wandering follow. Told in short episodic vignettes, the narrator is nursed back to health after a serious illness by his geography teacher and his wife, only to witness the latter's subsequent death.
He finds himself interned at a so-called ‘vocational school’ where the starving orphans are in constant danger of falling into the heavy machinery they are forced to operate and takes a frozen ride through the steppes in an empty freight train transporting coal. A brief stint as a farm labourer in Siberia allows him to earn some money after many brushes with danger only for him to be found starving and exhausted by a Russian peasant woman and her daughters, who take him in and care for him as one of their own.
The now-teenage protagonist goes off to the German front where the colonel of the regiment decides he wants to adopt him as his son. But by another twist of fate the colonel is killed during the last days of the war and once again the narrator finds himself on his own. Finally, he makes his way to his grandfather's home town, where, against all odds, his whole family is eventually reunited.
This novel is based on Ephraim Sevela’s own experiences during the Second World War in the USSR. Sevela's prose are both funny and wise in their earthy detail but it is a somewhat sombre book and more suitable for older children.