Most eight-year-old children play games of pretend, games in which they imagine themselves hiding from a “monster” who is after them, fantasizing about undergoing journeys across raging rivers or snow-covered mountains to outwit this evil presence that seeks them. For young Julian Padowicz, these types of adventures were no game of make-believe –instead, they are very real memories of a childhood spent eluding the Nazis during WWII. Loves of Yulian, the final book in a three-part series by Padowicz, recounts his incredible experiences fleeing Nazi-occupied Poland with his beautiful socialite mother, who sells her jewelry, including her engagement ring, to finance their escape.

In a journey that takes him from Poland to Hungary to Rio de Janeiro and, finally, to New York, we see Yulian as a child struggling to establish an identity during a time of intense upheaval and confusion. Raised by a Catholic nanny, Padowicz writes about being unsure where the “good Jews,” like his late father, went after they passed away. In his child’s mind, he strives to grasp the concept taught by his nanny that “bad Jews,” like “bad Catholics,” go to Hell, but there is no place in Heaven for the “good Jews.”  Still possessing the innocence of childhood despite the harrows he was subjected to, Yulian grapples with, and to some extent, resolves, this sense of confusion, of alienation and non-belonging, with the guidance of a respected Polish poet and from the companionship of his (Yulian’s) own stuffed animal. As the story progresses, the young Padowicz abandons the pretense of Catholicism he was forced to adopt under the Nazis, and embraces with increasing pride his identity as a Jew.

Additionally, Padowicz writes with sensitivity and nuance about his mother Barbara, an excellent writer herself whose book Flight To Freedom would be published in 1942, the first of the WWII escape stories. Fiercely committed to ensuring her and her son’s safety, Barbara uses her cunning and resourceful nature to pull off an escape many were unable to. She is a character rife with duality- at once a pillar of steely strength and resolve, yet also surprisingly dependent. As she begins a loving but ill-suited relationship with a man in Brazil, we see Padowicz’s yearning for a father figure, his strong and understandable desire for guidance and consistency in his young, uprooted life. He depicts the struggles he went through to “fit in,” his ongoing battle against the stuttering that hampered his ability to communicate his thoughts and emotions to others, and his all-consuming love for an older fellow refugee named Irenka.

Loves of Yulian shows a young boy thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and how he copes with the resulting backlash of these events is the crux of the story. The specter of the Holocaust is constantly in the background — as Yulian grows and evolves out of the trauma, so too does the world around him try to contain, and ultimately, recover from the horror. ~Nicola