Title: Letters From RifkaLetters from Rifka
Karen Hesse
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Letters from Rifka is (as you may imagine) a series of letters written by Rifka, a twelve-year old Jewish immigrant, to her beloved cousin, Tovah. While Rifka, her family and friends are fictional, almost all of the events and details of the story actually befell Mrs. Hesse’s great-aunt Lucy who, like Rifka in the story, immigrated from Russia to America during Lenin’s regime.

The Story.

Although Jews, Rifka and her family have lived a tolerable life in Russia – true, three of Rifka’s older brothers immigrated to America to escape joining the Russian army, but that was so long ago that Rifka never even met them and certainly doesn’t miss them. But now the army is coming after Saul, demanding that he join their brutish forces. There is only one thing that Rifka and her family can do: flee. But they have no immigration papers, and the only other way to leave is illegally……

The Russians stringently search each train, yet Rifka and her family manage to bribe and train-hop their way through Ukraine and Poland, where the lethal disease typhus halts their progress. After recovering from it, Rifka and her family press forward to Warsaw where they must be examined one last time for disease before they will be allowed to cross over to America. Rifka is joyous, hopeful, thrilled that they are at last to begin their new lives in America. But a horrible decision is made. Rifka will not be allowed to sail to America. Rifka has contracted ringworm.

Rifka and her family face a devastating decision. Should they all wait? Or should the rest of Rifka’s family sail to America, establish a home, and begin to earn much-needed money?


Rifka is a strong girl, a thinking girl. She adapts to new circumstances, always seeking the furtherance of her family’s goals. She takes care of herself well during her stay in Warsaw, not becoming ‘independent’, but entirely self-governing.

I particularly liked Rifka’s relationship with Ilya, a Russian peasant boy. Although the Russians were her oppressors, Rifka takes care of Ilya, giving him a portion of her food to satisfy his hunger, and providing him with maternal love. She also takes a Polish baby under her wing, tending to it and caring for it at the Ellis Island hospital.


Under September 3, 1919, Rifka and her mother are strip-searched by a Polish doctor. Rifka writes that he took a longer time examining her mother, but it is not implied that he took any advantage of either of them.

Under November 27, 1919, Rifka writes of her mother,

“I was afraid to tell her the truth, Tovah. To tell her I wanted only to find a quiet corner, where I could open our Pushkin. She did not like your teaching me Pushkin in Berdichev. If Mama had her way, I would know how to cook, and sew, and keep the Sabbath. That is all.”

While this paragraph is entirely disrespectful, the rest of the book makes it clear that Rifka does love her mother; she is devastated at the necessity of being parted from her in Warsaw, and when they are reunited Rifka writes, “I was so happy I thought my heart had broken open like an egg.”

Under November 30, 1919, Rifka writes that her mother yelled at her. Admittedly, Rifka had just done something quite stupid.

Under February 25, 1920, Rifka writes

“[Sister Katrina] taught me a prayer to say in my head when I need to scratch. I think saying the prayer is supposed to keep my mind off the itching. I am not sure it is right, though, for a Jew to say Catholic prayers. I say a Hebrew prayer instead.”

Later on in the same letter, Rifka reports, “Sometimes I even say Sister Katrina’s prayer, even if it is for Catholics. I hope that does not make things worse for me.”

Under September 19, 1920, Rifka writes that Pieter, a young sailor, kissed her. Nothing else occurs between them.

Under October 14, 1920, Rifka writes,

“I stepped closer to the workmen. One of them used English words I hadn’t heard before. I don’t think they were words Mama would want me to learn, but still I was curious.”

Rifka does not write what the words were.

Under October 9, 1920, Rifka is shocked to learn that her parents are now working on the Sabbath.

Throughout the story there is a recurring tension between Rifka and her brother Saul. This is interspersed by a few fond feelings between them and the generous nursing of Rifka by Saul when she becomes ill with typhus. At the end of the book they are getting along with one another.

Conclusion. The large number of cautions I have listed may make you wary of this book, but I would encourage you to give it a try. It does have mature elements, but these are ‘exceptions’ rather than the rule of the story. It is an engaging tale for discerning readers.

Review © 2012 Laura Verret

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