Letters from Rifka – Review



“America,” the girl repeated. “What will you do there?”
I was silent for a little time.
“I will do everything there,” I answered.

Rifka knows nothing about America when she flees from Russia with her family in 1919. But she dreams that in the new country she will, at last, be safe from the Russian soldiers and their harsh treatment of the Jews. Throughout her journey, Rifka carries with her a cherished volume of poetry by Alexander Pushkin. In it, she records her observations and experiences in the form of letters to Tovah, the beloved cousin she has left behind.

Strong-hearted and determined, Rifka must endure a great deal: humiliating examinations by doctors and soldiers, deadly typhus, separation from all she has ever known and loved, murderous storms at sea, detainment on Ellis Island–and is if this is not enough, the loss of her glorious golden hair.

Based on a true story from the author’s family, Letters from Rifka presents a real-life heroine with an uncommon courage and unsinkable spirit.

Twenty years ago I was in third grade reading my first Karen Hesse book, Letters From Rifka. I don’t remember which school I was going to at the time of reading or why I even picked up this story, but I vividly remember the impact it had on me. This book was responsible for many literary firsts in my life and solely inspired my love of Historical Fiction. I have been hoping to acquire it for years, prior to Amazon, and often visited bookstores asking if they carried it. No one had ever heard of it. Now that my daughter was nearing the age I was when I experienced the story, I decided it was time to purchase my own copy and read it with her.

Surprisingly, my son ended up being the one to enjoy this book most! Oftentimes while I am reading, he will be playing on the floor with toys. I had finally given up hope of him listening to what I was reading because a love of books isn’t something I want to force. To my delight, one day I asked if they were ready for me to read Rifka and his response was, “Yes, I love that book!” I asked him what he loved about it and he ended up reciting a full summary of the story. The whole time I was thinking he hadn’t been paying an iota of attention!

For me personally, I was surprised by how many details of this story I remembered two decades later. I know this book resulted in my first recollection of empathy, though I didn’t have a name for the experience at the time. In many ways, this book rocked my sheltered middle-class American world. Through this book alone, I realized kids experienced true suffering, things that had been unimaginable to me before. I understood discrimination and heartbreak, loneliness and longing, even hunger and pain in a completely new way.

I remember being awed by Karen Hesse’s writing. At one point she described a person creating a breeze in the air when they walked by. Such a simple thing, but as a kid, this realization of knowing another person experienced something I often observed was like an awakening. People could write anything – they could describe even the most mundane things and it became magical to me.

In third grade, I also moved away from the only friends I had ever known in my small hometown in Michigan for a cruel new school in Alabama. A school where I was mercilessly teased for my blonde hair, my white skin, the way I talked, and many other things. At the time, I wrote letters to my friends “back home” and drew strength from those relationships when I had no friends at my new school. Experiencing the letters Rifka wrote to her cousin, Tovah, allowed me to experience a sense of kinship. She knew what it was like to miss her home and all she knew, just like I was.

As an adult, reading this book to my children was one of the most nostalgic experiences I think I have ever had. I loved sharing this book with them and being able to explain the things they didn’t quite understand. We pulled out a map of Russia and Europe to follow Rifka’s journey as she traveled and they were able to gain a bit of worldly understanding. We talked about Judaism and the treatment of Jews throughout history. Overall, this book fostered a great learning experience for my kiddos and me. So many years later, this book is still making an impact in the lives and hearts of children and I could not be more grateful to Karen Hesse.

Purchase on Amazon.


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5 Comments Add yours

  1. This book brings back memories.I read it to my fourth grade classes many years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re the only one I know who’s ever read it!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your review of this, Ashley! I am not sure I know this book, but I’m definitely going to read it. Love the nostalgia this book has for you and how you are sharing it with your kids!

    Liked by 1 person

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