What happened to the children who had to start a new life because their families fled Germany when the Nazis came to power?
“The Boy With Four Names,” by Doris Rubenstein (iUniverse, $13.99), is a young adult novel based on a real-life family the author met while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador from 1971 to 1973 and became familiar with the Jewish community there, especially the family of Enrique Cohen whose family left Germany when he was a toddler.
The book is a reminder of the days leading up to World War II when millions of Jews were killed in death camps such as Auschwitz and we mark this today ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January.
Probably few North Americans know that the tiny South American country of Ecuador, nestled between Colombia to the north and Peru, with a population of just over 2 million in the 1930s , housed some 3,000 Jews while other countries, including the United States, were limiting their numbers or denying access.
Enrique, the boy with four names, was born Enrico, which means Heinrich in Italian, because his parents admired the German poet Heinrich Heine. Then his name became Enrique, Spanish for Enrico. When health issues plagued him, he was sent to his paternal grandmother in Ohio, where he was Hank. And when he returned to Ecuador to do his Bar Mitzvah, his Hebrew name was Tzvi ben Avraham.
The novel begins in the mid-1930s with the boy’s father, Abraham Cohen, fleeing Germany because he accidentally killed a policeman who was wearing a Nazi pin. He left the country as quickly as possible with the help of relatives in Holland and an old friend in Milan, Italy. He and his wife, Herta Sauer, ended up working and living on a wine farm in Italy. Herta longed for her parents and hatched a plan to smuggle them out of Germany in huge wine vats. Abie was terrified of returning to Germany, where he would surely be killed, but he did and in one thrilling chapter, the Sauers found their daughter.
This story shows the children’s resilience, even when they move to a country where they cannot communicate. Enrique tried to learn the language and participate in boys’ sports, whether in Italy or the United States. It seems he was a happy child, but in the background were letters and tears as his family discovered loved ones who were never heard from again.
This is a quick and easy to read story that would be a good starting point for a school project. there are many stories on the internet about Jews in Ecuador. Two things might need to be explained to younger readers; Herta’s waters break when she’s ready to have the baby, and why it was important for 12-year-old Enrique to get circumcised in hospital ahead of his Bar Mitzvah.
The author’s previous books, “You Are Always Welcome to Aaron’s Temple” and “The Dollar Trip” have won awards.