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From the New York Times bestselling author of the Emily Windsnap series, Liz Kessler, comes a “brutally honest and totally believable” (Booklist, starred review) story of three young friends whose fates are intertwined during the devastation of the Holocaust—based on a true story.

Three friends. One memory.
Vienna. 1936.

Three young friends—Leo, Elsa, and Max—spend a perfect day together, unaware that around them Europe is descending into a growing darkness and that they will soon be cruelly ripped apart from one another. With their lives taking them across Europe—to Germany, England, Prague, and Poland—will they ever find their way back to one another? Will they want to?

Inspired by a true story, When the World Was Ours is an extraordinary novel that is as powerful as it is heartbreaking and that shows how the bonds of love, family, and friendship allow glimmers of hope to flourish, even in the most hopeless of times.

1. Leo Leo
I could see the whole world! Or at least the whole of Vienna, and that was my world.

My two best friends, Max and Elsa, stood beside me, their faces pressed to the glass next to mine.

“Look at the tiny people!” Max exclaimed, pointing down below us as we rose higher and higher into the sky.

“The buildings look like a toy town!” Elsa said.

I couldn’t even speak. I was too afraid that if I opened my mouth, some of the joy inside me might slip out, and I didn’t want to lose a single bit of it.

It was my ninth birthday and the best day of my life, bar none.

When my parents had asked me last week what I wanted to do for my birthday, there was no contest. I wanted to ride on Vienna’s Ferris wheel: the Riesenrad. We had lived in Vienna almost my whole life, but I’d never been on it. Whenever I asked, Mama would always say I was too young and that I’d be afraid to be so high up. But I wasn’t scared at all. I think Mama was afraid herself, really, which is why she decided she wouldn’t come with us.

“Your papa will take you to the fairground,” she told me. “I’ll stay home and prepare a wonderful birthday meal for you. What cake would you like?”

“Sachertorte!” I replied without hesitating. Mama made the best Sachertorte in Vienna. She had a secret recipe, passed down from Omama, my grandma.

I crossed the days off on the calendar in the kitchen. The week crawled by slower than the snails at the bottom of our garden.

But now at last my birthday was here, and the Riesenrad ride was even better than I’d imagined it would be. It was a cold October day, but bright and sunny and we could see for miles and miles.

The carriage rose higher and higher. We would soon be in the clouds!

Max leaned his forehead against the window. “I feel like the king of Vienna,” he said. The glass fogged up as he spoke.

I knew what he meant. Climbing high above the city made me feel invincible. Vienna was ours to share. A whole city spread out just for Elsa, Max, and me. All the other people in the carriage had faded into the background. Even Papa. He was sitting reading a newspaper and frowning. He was missing the best thing in the world!

We didn’t care. The fact that the adults were missing out only kept more of it for us. Our city, this carriage, our friendship—that was all we needed.

It was always like that with us three. We’d been best friends since the first day of Volksschule—big school—two years ago. We had been seated in a row of three, Elsa in between Max and me like she was now. I can still picture us: me with my tie done up so tightly I could hardly breathe; Elsa with her plaited hair and pink ribbons and her pencil case with shiny beads; Max in his trousers that were just a little too short and his shirt that was a little too big.

We looked at each other that first morning and smiled, and it was as if we knew it straightaway: we were a team. When the boys pulled on my tie, when they laughed at Max’s ankles sticking out of the bottom of his trousers, when the girls made fun of Elsa’s fancy ribbons—none of it mattered because we had each other.

“If you’re the king, I’ll be queen,” Elsa said now.

“What about me?” I asked. “It is my birthday, after all.”

“We can have two kings!” Elsa replied. That was so like her. Always wanting to be fair to everyone.

“If you’re the queen, that means you have to marry one of us,” Max said. “So who will you choose?” He gave Elsa a look as he spoke. A look that I’d seen between them sometimes recently. I always pretended I hadn’t noticed. It felt like a secret they shared. A promise that excluded me. I told myself I was imagining it. They would never exclude me. Nothing would ever come between the three of us.

Elsa giggled. “I could never choose!” she said. “I’ll marry you both, of course.”

That was good enough for me.

Max folded his arms and narrowed his eyes as he pretended to think. “Okay, that’s an excellent plan,” he said, nodding his agreement.

“Hey, kids.” Papa folded up his paper and cupped his ear. “Can you hear that?”

We strained to listen. Other than the soft chatter of the other people in the carriage, I couldn’t hear anything. “What are we listening to?” I asked.

Papa laughed. “Nothing! That’s just it. It’s the sound you hear when the carriage stops.”

He was right. The big wheel was still and now we were on top of the whole world. For a moment, I wondered if we might stay there forever. I hoped so.

Then I remembered Mama’s Sachertorte waiting for us at home and decided that forever might be a little too long.

Papa had stood up and was getting his camera out of his jacket pocket. He rarely went anywhere without a camera. Papa was Vienna’s finest family photographer. That’s what it said on his shop window anyway.

“Come on, let’s take your picture while you’re on top of the world, eh?” he said.

The three of us squashed together in front of the window.

Papa lowered his camera and frowned. “Not there,” he said. “The sun is right behind you. You’ll be nothing but shadows. Come here.” He waved a hand toward the door at the far end of the carriage. “Stand against this so the bright sky is in front of you.”

We shuffled to the end of the carriage and squeezed in toward each other.

Papa looked at us through the camera’s lens. “Perfect,” he said. “We have to get the picture just right. And you know why that is?” he asked.

“Because a picture paints a thousand words,” I replied, pretending to yawn. Papa said the same thing every time he took a photo.

He laughed. “That’s right. And believe me, this will be a picture to paint a thousand words—all of them happy ones as well!” he said. “Now remember, whatever you do, don’t smile!”

Max frowned. “I thought people always smiled in photos.”

“Not in my photos,” Papa replied in a mock serious tone. “I don’t allow it.”

Elsa let out a giggle.

“Ah ah! No laughing either!” Papa warned.

Elsa giggled again. I could feel my own face twitching into a smile.

“I said NO smiling!” Papa said again. By this time, everyone in the carriage was laughing, not just the three of us.

Click, click, click went the shutter.

“Beautiful, fantastic, wonderful!” Papa called as he photographed us, talking to us just like I’d heard him talk to his clients. When he’d finished, he lowered the camera. “I’ll choose the best photo and give each of you a copy, so you’ll always have a memory of this day. How does that sound?”

“It sounds wonderful, Papa,” I said. “Thank you!”

“Good. Now then,” he said as he put his camera back into his jacket pocket, “I think I saw at least one of you smiling. And you know how I punish smilers?”

Elsa shook her head. Max bit his lip. I knew what was coming and had already started to move away.

“I punish them with tickles!” Papa announced.

He reached out toward us, and all three of us squealed as we tried to run from his clutches. At that exact moment, the Ferris wheel started moving again and the carriage jolted. I fell forward and tripped over a lady’s outstretched foot. The man next to her grabbed hold of me just before I landed in his lap.

Papa was beside me in a second. “I’m so sorry,” he said to the couple. Then he looked down at me. “Leo, apologize to the lady.”

I cleared my throat and tucked my shirt back under my suspenders. It had become ruffled as I’d fallen. “I’m really sorry,” I said, looking the lady in the eye. For a moment, she stared at me so hard I thought she was going to tell me off. Then she turned to the man and said something in a different language. German was the only language I knew, so I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

He replied in that other language, and then she nodded and turned back to me.

Waving both hands in front of her, she said, in broken German this time, “It okay. Nothing. No mind.” I didn’t understand exactly what she meant, but her words were accompanied with such a big smile that I knew I was off the hook. “We are English,” she added. “Not speak good German.”

“You speak very well,” Papa replied. Then he turned back to me. “And what do you say to the gentleman who stopped you from falling?” he prompted.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the man. “And thank you.”

The man gave me a broad smile and waved a hand as if to dismiss my apology. Then the woman spoke to Papa. “Your son?” she said.

“Yes, he’s my son,” Papa replied. “He’s nine today.” Gesticulating to indicate the ride, he said, “Birthday treat!”

“Ah!” The woman turned back to me.

“Happy birthday,” the man said with another broad smile.

“He is beautiful boy,” the lady said. She pointed at my hair.

Beautiful? Who called boys beautiful? Maybe it was because of my blond curls.

“Can I go now?” I asked Papa.

“Yes, but be more careful, okay? No more bumping into people.”

I didn’t say that I’d only bumped into them because he’d been chasing us with tickle hands. I could see Max and Elsa huddled up together, and I wanted to get back to them. I didn’t want to miss out on even one minute of this day.

“Sit with us. Please,” the woman was saying to Papa as I moved away.

“If you’re sure,” Papa replied. He reached out to shake her hand. “I am Frank Grunberg,” he said.

“Aileen Stewart,” said the lady. Then she pointed at the man. “Eric Stewart, my husband.”

“Please to meet you,” the man said in broken German like his wife’s as he shook Papa’s hand.

Papa sat down beside them, and before I’d even gotten back to Max and Elsa, he was talking animatedly with the couple.

That’s what he was like. He could talk to anyone, even people who didn’t speak the same language! Everyone loved my father. Everyone smiled when he was around, and wanted to be his friend. Sometimes I wished I was like that, but mostly I was fine how I was. I had my two best friends. I didn’t need any more. The three of us were enough for each other.

The ride had come to an end and people were piling out of the carriage. Papa was still deep in conversation with the English couple. None of them had noticed we were back on the ground.

“Mister. You going around again?” the man at the door said.

Papa looked up. His eyes twinkled like they always did when he had an idea. “You know what?” he said. “Yes! Let’s go around again. What do you think, kids?”

We cheered, loud enough to make Papa cover his ears as he laughed. Then he turned to the couple next to him. “Come around again,” he said, drawing a big circle in the air with his hand. “My treat. To apologize.”

The man shook his head. “No. No,” he said. “Not need to do that.”

“Not need to,” Papa replied. “Want to!”

Laughing, the couple shrugged and agreed to go around again. Papa stood up and went over to the door. He handed over a bunch of notes, and the ticket man shrugged. Then he let a few more people in, closed the door behind them, and off we went, back to the sky.

Elsa, Max, and I ran back to the window so we wouldn’t miss a second as we soared up above the city once again.

That’s what Papa could do. Take the best day ever and double it.
n/a

Liz Kessler has written over twenty books for children and young adults. Most of these are middle grade books featuring mermaids, fairies, time travel, and superpowers. She lives in the UK.