In The Year of Goodbyes, author Debbie Levy takes a fresh approach to memoir and the story of German Jews in the late 1930s. The book takes place in the year 1938, when Jutta Salzberg, Levy’s mother, is a 12-year-old girl living in Hamburg, Germany. Restrictions against Jews have gotten tighter during the last few years, and her father is desperate to leave with his family for the U.S., where he has relatives who will sponsor him. They have permission from German officials and the money to book transportation, but visas from the U.S. are slow to come.
Jutta certainly is aware of the tensions, but she’s also concerned with the same things any 12-year-old girl would be—school, friends, her pet bird, and the neighbors in her building. Each day that goes by brings news of someone else who has disappeared, and often Jutta hears Nazi boots in the stairwell of her own building as soldiers come to take away neighbors. Salzberg’s family managed to leave Germany for France and finally the U.S., departing just before Kristallnacht, otherwise known as Night of Broken Glass, when the Nazis destroyed many Jewish homes and businesses.
When Jutta Salzberg left, one of the few treasures she took with her was her poesiealbum, an autograph book filled with inscriptions, verse and drawings, all written to Jutta by her friends and relatives. Each chapter of The Year of Goodbyes highlights a page from the poesiealbum and notes from Jutta’s diary entries around the same time.
The result is a simple, but moving account of everyday people, living everyday lives in an extraordinary time. Salzberg and her family knew they were leaving friends and family behind to move across an ocean; they never imagined the fate that awaited those who could not or did not leave. The book is even more poignant because Levy includes notes on her research and her discoveries about what happened to each of the friends who wrote in her mother’s poesiealbum during the year as well as the fate of the Salzberg family’s relatives. Photos of many of the people also brings Jutta’s story to life.
The heart of this book can be found on the pages from the poesiealbum. I was struck by how thoughtful the writings were, and the sentiments they expressed. They show a maturity that seems uncommon for 12 year olds of today. The Year of Goodbyes may be quick to read, but the words will linger in your mind for a long time to come. I highly recommend this book for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 12 and up. If you are considering reading it, you may also be interested in watching this book trailer Levy posted on YouTube.