Family & War: On Roxanne Veletzos’ ‘The Girl They Left Behind’

Veletzos reaches into her own history to bring readers a story of a Jewish family’s attempt at survival in WWII Romania.

Roxanne Veletzos
Novel | 368 Pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: Ebook
9781501187681| First Edition | $26.99
Atria Books | New York City | BUY HERE

Image: Atria Books.

The modern rise of fascism not only in the United States but in Western Europe makes many find parallels between the symbolism of the alt-right and the propaganda of Hitler’s army. This means stories such as Roxanne Veletzos’ The Girl They Left Behind are published in an auspicious moment, even though the politically tumultuous nature of 1944 is not the text’s primary focus. Readers are, rather, guided through World War II in Romania and the country’s invasion by Russia through the eyes of Natalia, a young Jewish girl, whose parents, in their attempt to escape the clutches of those who would see them dead, had to leave her behind as they ran for America.

The Girl They Left Behind, in this way, tackles not only the tension of life in the face of numerous bombings and political escapades, but also tries to encompass the emotional drama of adoption and how adopted parents and children alike struggle to adjust to becoming a family. This picturesque exploration compounds the ticking clock of war that Veletzos leaves in the story’s background, leaving Natalia and her adopted parents, Anton and Despina, to make their decisions in the face of bombings, communist rule, and a desire to stay alive and together.

The cast of characters in the book is vast, ranging from the nuclear family Natalia finds herself adopted into, to her birth parents, to representatives of the Russian communist party. Readers witness how characters like Anton, Despina, and communist Victor all transform over several years in terms of their relationship with Natalia, who, while serving as the story’s primary character, is only one of many voices expressed from Veletzos’ third-person point of view. Though serving as the novel’s focus and the eyepiece through which readers are invited to view World War II-damaged Romania, Natalia herself seems untouchable, in terms of time and transformation. Both her birth mother, Zora, and Despina succumb to the onslaught of war by sinking into their grief, and Anton and Victor become hardened shells of their former selves. Natalia, though, remains ever naïve.

Not only is it rare to see moments of true character momentum for Natalia, it is rare to see her assume agency. That is to say, Natalia seems to spend the bulk of this novel responding to the needs of the people around her or ignoring the politically-tense environment in which she lives. Rarely is she able to make her own decisions about how she wants to behave, how she wants to interact with her environment, or even with whom she wants to become involved, either in terms of her romantic relationship with Victor, which the man more or less foists upon her, or her relationship with her birth parents. Even though Natalia does, at one point, discover a letter from her birth parents to her adopted parents, she is never shown to act on its information. Beyond a page’s worth of distress, she does not mention the new information she gains. Both Victor and a lawyer, John Fowley, determine the relationship she has with her birth parents for her when they make travel and financial plans for her toward the end of the novel. This lack of agency on the part of the story’s primary character can become frustrating, as it seems readers must watch the people around Natalia act but are, in turn, unable to act themselves. So, too, does this lack of response leave a few questions lingering at the end of the novel. Why, for example, does Natalia return so meekly to her birth parents? The bond of parenthood is, of course, present, but she is never shown to express any strong emotions toward them save for in the epilogue, wherein she says:

“It is no secret that I have come to love them, that I’ve loved them from the moment Zora opened the door that late afternoon in July [. …]”

And even so, this emotion is told, not shown. Where is the frustration at being left behind? The anger? The confusion and complex emotional response to having two sets of parents? In this way, and partnered with her lack of growth, Natalia remains both the picture of original innocence and a deeply frustrating point of view through which to witness the struggle of adoption and of the overpowering influence of fascism.

Perhaps this frustration can be abated, though, if readers do not look to Natalia to be the main character of her titular novel. Instead, readers can look to characters like Despina and Anton to guide them through the struggle not only of adopting a child and reassuring that child that she is loved but also the struggle of surviving within and resisting against the rule of fascism and Russian communism. Despina and Anton are, in fact, the most delightful elements of this novel. Despina’s story of miscarriage, love, and sacrifice partnered with the tragedy of Anton’s battle with the political turmoil around him make them compelling and empathetic characters that command the pages they’re on. Even when they make frustrating decisions — such as Despina’s desire to stay near Anton during the bombing of their home city — readers understand why said decisions are being made and how those decisions impact the development of the character in question.

All said and done: The Girl They Left Behind is not a perfect book. If readers are looking for a work that focuses primarily on discourse with World War II-era fascism, Jewishness, and the complexity of adoption, then this is perhaps not the work to go to. However, if readers want an easy-to-read story set in a complex country during a trying time that can still elicit strong feelings about what defines a family, then The Girl They Left Behind more than fits the bill.

CELIA DANIELS is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s Degree in Literature at the University of Toledo. When she isn’t preoccupied with all the stress therein, she enjoys traveling back to her alma mater, Indiana University Bloomington, drinking copious amounts of tea, and reading environmentally-oriented science fiction.