Life was tough for a poor Jewish farming family in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Sam was born soon after into a very large family. Even the children worked to feed and clothe everyone. His older brothers and sisters had already emigrated to America and Sam is determined to follow. But that would mean breaking the law as he would be seen as avoiding the draught.
Eventually he makes it to Canada where he meets Hannah, his wife of 65 years. But Hannah lives in New York and only sees Sam when she visits her family in Montreal. For Sam to join her he must slip across the border illegally as he has no papers or passport. But having made it thus far, a little problem like that is not going to defeat him!
We follow Sam and Hannah though their successes, their failures, reasonably well off one day, poor as synagogue mice the next. We are there at the births of their five children, then their grandchildren and finally their last moments.
One thing that amazed me was how many times the family moved house. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Seven years in our first home. Twenty-four in the second and just coming up to ten years in the house we have now. They seemed to move every couple of years.
There’s a chapter where Sam is in a coma for the third time. He’s had TB for many years and has been given an experimental drug – streptomycin. At one point he has a dream. Everywhere is dark apart from a light up in the air. A baby comes to him and says ‘…we have to go out where it’s light. It’s too dark over here. Come with me Daddy. We have to go home.’ He says his little Eliza rescued him.
My father was a prisoner-of-war in Siberia. He later became ill with TB. Many years later he suffered a heart attack. It was dark and he was going towards the light (it’s more usual for those having a near death experience to say they were being drawn towards the light). He heard my youngest son (then about 6 years old) say to him ‘Come back. It’s not your time.’ And he woke up. Like Sam I can barely talk about it without choking up. My mother also had TB in the early 70s. I had to be checked every six months like Sam’s children when he became ill.
A historical novel inspired by true events, Hands of Gold could represent the lives of so many impoverished Jewish families throughout the 20th century. I would say my mother’s included, but her family were wealthy and didn’t leave Europe until the late 1930s to come to England. However, there was so much in this story that I recognised and could relate to. Even if you know very little about the Jews (apart from their persecution during the Second World War), I’m sure you will find this book as fascinating as I did.