This reading group guide for The Light After the War includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anita Abriel. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.IntroductionThe Light After the War
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is inspired by an incredible true story of two Jewish friends who survived the Holocaust.
In 1946, Vera Frankel and her best friend, Edith Ban, arrive in Naples as refugees from Hungary. They jumped from the train that carried their mothers to Auschwitz and spent the rest of the war hiding on an Austrian farm. Now, the two young women are determined to start new lives abroad. Armed with a letter of recommendation from an American officer, Vera finds work at the American embassy, where she falls in love with Captain Anton Wight.
But as Vera and Edith grapple with the aftermath of the war, so too does Anton, and when he suddenly disappears, Vera is forced to change course. Their quest for a better life takes Vera and Edith from Naples to Ellis Island to Caracas as they start careers, reunite with loved ones, and rebuild their lives after unimaginable loss.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Chapter 1 ends with Vera saying to Edith, “We’re in a new country, and everything is before us” (p. 12). Consider what these two girls must be thinking about as they embark on this new journey together. How does this set the tone of the novel?
2. When Marcus says that he believes “Women are goddesses; men are their servants” (p. 44), we catch a glimpse of a much more traditional or rigid view of the relationship between a man and a woman. Vera questions this to herself: “Wasn’t it better to find someone to share things with . . . ?” (p. 45). How do Vera and Edith challenge these deeply institutionalized beliefs about women?
3. After Vera’s conversation with Captain Wight in which Vera reveals she is living with the guilt of causing her parents’ deaths, Captain Wight tells her, “But you mustn’t blame yourself; five hundred and fifty thousand Hungarian Jews were killed at concentration camps” (p. 37). Do you think this gives her any consolation? How do you think surviving while her parents died impacts the way she views her own mortality?
4. Edith believes she will never truly love again after Stefan. Could her conviction over his death be representative of a greater sense of loss? What does her inability to move on from him say about Edith’s sense of loyalty and views on love?
5. It’s a powerful scene when Vera reads the interview with Mr. Rothschild in which he says, “This country was built on refugees with big dreams” (p. 107). Discuss the present-day importance of that statement. How is it historically relevant across the globe?
6. How has Vera changed since the sudden departure of Anton? What does this mean for her already significantly diminished capacity for hope?
7. We see on page 159 that one of Vera’s greatest fears is the prospect of her uncertain future: “Ricardo had asked why they came to Caracas . . . But the truth was that they were afraid of facing a future without the people they loved.” How has being thrust into adulthood at such a young age already shaped Vera’s character and worldview?
8. Vera’s life takes a shocking turn when Ricardo kills himself. Think back to the conversation between Edith and Vera when we find out that his last relationship was ruined by his jealousy (p. 208). How did this foreshadow Ricardo’s demise? Discuss how his death is representative of the novel’s larger theme of ushering in the future.
9. Revisit the scene where Vera first meets Ricardo’s parents. She gets into a conversation with Ricardo’s mother, Alessandra, about values, and Alessandra tells her, “Do you know what the most important human trait is? It is not piety, as our Catholic priests would wish; it’s not honesty or even loyalty. It is empathy. If we don’t have empathy for others, we are finished” (p. 191). In what ways does empathy, or the lack thereof, manifest itself in this novel?
10. After Edith discovers Robert has been lying to her and ultimately left her bankrupt, she proclaims that she’ll never allow a man to take advantage of her again (p. 234). Why is this a definitive marking point in Edith’s coming of age? How has she changed since the beginning of the novel?
11. Vera’s mother tells her there is “no bond greater than that between mothers and daughters” (p. 268). What are some similar character traits shared between Vera and her mother? What does their dedication to each other even after all this time of uncertainty tell us about the mother-daughter bond?
12. Vera takes a pivotal step in assuming control over her future when she replies to Anton’s marriage proposal by telling him “Getting engaged and marrying you would be the best thing of all, but I don’t want to rush. Is it all right if I wait a little while to accept the ring?” (p. 304). Why do you think it took until that moment for her to gain this level of confidence?
13. How did knowing that The Light After the War
is based on a true story, and that it’s based on the author’s family, influence your reading of the novel?
14. Revisit the opening scene where Vera first meets Captain Anton Wight. He says, “I want to leave Naples the way it was before Hitler got his hands on it” (p. 5). Throughout the story, characters long for the past—e.g., Edith waiting for Stefan; Vera for prewar Budapest—but they ultimately move on to pursue lives very different from what they had planned. How is this representative of the world at that time?Enhance Your Book Club
1. One of the primary concepts that comes up throughout the novel is the existence of traditional social constructs and expectations of women—and how those constructs were beginning to break apart. We see this addressed several times, but most notably with Ricardo. At one point, he goes on a small tirade about Venezuelan society in which he tells Vera, “Here it’s frowned on for a woman to dine in public without a man. And a married woman would never go out without her husband” (p. 180) and again later: “My mother understands her place in Venezuelan society, and you will, too. Why should we change things?” (p. 255). Consider how Vera and Edith challenge these conservative gender tropes throughout the novel. How do they personify women’s empowerment and a more progressive belief in social norms?
2. Consider other recent popular works of WWII fiction such as Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls
, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale
, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.
How was it a different experience reading a WWII novel that focused on the time period right after the end of the war? How does looking at the postwar world through the eyes of characters who lived through it make you think about its global impact? Does reading a story about real people who survived the Holocaust provide a more hopeful or optimistic reading experience, given that we’ve seen how the world has moved on since?A Conversation with Anita AbrielQ: This is a uniquely personal story to tell. What was the process of learning your mother’s story and transcribing it into a book like? How did you choose to embody her voice?
A: My grandparents lived with us until they died, so I heard snippets of stories about the Holocaust throughout my childhood. They often spoke Hungarian to each other and ate many traditional Hungarian foods, so those details were quite natural for me to include in the book. But I got my first glimpse of my mother’s story when I was eleven and I asked her why my grandmother kissed her on the neck every night before bed. That’s how I learned about her being shot in Caracas. My mother’s voice came naturally to me because even though she died ten years ago, I think about her every day.Q: Does every character in the book have a real-world equivalent, or were some characters fictionalized for the sake of the story?
A: I kept the names of most of the main characters—Vera, Edith, Alice, Lawrence—the same as their real-world equivalents. Some characters like Ricardo and Anton I didn’t know as well, so I fictionalized them, and there are others who I invented for the story.Q: What was the most interesting thing you learned about your mother or the war while writing The Light After the War?
A: The most interesting thing I learned was what it must have been like to be young and lose everything and have to create a new future far from what she had known. I learned her stories as a child from the comfort of our home in Sydney. At the time, it didn’t occur to me how everything she went through must have been so difficult. She was very brave and the hardships and tragedies she experienced are almost impossible to imagine.Q: The role of women and the expectations placed on them, whether by men or by society, are prevalent in your novel. Why is this a subject you wanted to explore in such depth?
A: Growing up in Australia, it was still a very male-dominated society. And even in America today, I see where women aren’t given the same advantages as their male counterparts. But my mother taught me I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard enough. I have always kept that belief close to my heart, and her words encouraged me to write about women and how they find their place in the world.Q: Vera and Edith are inseparable until the end of the novel, when it becomes clear that what’s best for each of them is no longer the same life path. Even in their act of separation, they are empowering each other like they do throughout the novel. How important do you think it is for women to empower other women?
A: Women empowering other women is crucial to a woman’s well-being. We get so much out of female friendships: as young girls, in the workplace, and as mothers. No one can understand women like other women.
I have the same best friend I have had since I was sixteen. Even though we go years between seeing each other, we talk on the phone almost daily and our bond is as strong as it has always been.Q: Why do you think it’s important to continue telling stories about the Holocaust—however fictionalized they might be—even though it’s such an emotionally difficult part of history to revisit?
A: The Holocaust was a time of unprecedented horrors. Even though I was familiar with many of my mother’s and grandparents’ stories growing up, looking at them from a larger historical scale made me realize the importance of writing it all down. We must never forget what happened so that something similar doesn’t happen again.Q: Do you have a next project in mind? And, if so, what is it?
A: My next book is set on the French Riviera during the Holocaust. It explores the way Jewish children were affected by the war and the terrible things that happened in such a beautiful place. I’m very excited about it and look forward to readers discovering it!