60 pages 2 hours read

Karen Hesse

Letters from Rifka

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


Karen Hesse’s young adult historical novel Letters from Rifka (1992) takes place between 1919 and 1920 and follows a young Jewish girl, Rifka, and her family as they escape persecution in Russia and begin a new life in America. The novel takes the form of letters Rifka writes, but cannot send, to her cousin in Russia, composed in the blank spaces of a volume of poetry by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. The work thus combines the genres of the epistolary novel (or novel-in-letters) and diary. Letters from Rifka received critical acclaim and awards, including the 1993 National Jewish Book Award.

This guide references the 1992 Henry Holt and Company edition.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with a letter written by Rifka, a young Jewish girl, as she writes to her cousin, Tovah (and the plot will unfold through installments of letters). The first letter opens during the Russian Civil War of 1919. Rifka is from the town of Berdichev, Ukraine (at the time, part of Russia). She and her family face persecution from the Russian army. When word gets to her family that her brother Saul will be conscripted, the family decides to flee Russia and rejoin Rifka’s two oldest brothers who live in the United States. The family sneaks onto the boxcars of a departing train, while Rifka, who does not appear Jewish, distracts the soldiers who search for her family. Rifka’s uncle creates a diversion, and the family escapes. Rifka takes a volume of Alexander Pushkin’s poetry given to her by her cousin Tovah, and it is on the pages of this book that Rifka writes her letters to Tovah, though she knows she cannot actually send them to her.

The family’s first stop is Poland. At the border, they are ordered to strip naked for inspection and are interrogated. They stay in the shed of a cousin, but everyone in the family except Saul becomes severely ill with typhus. While Rifka’s parents and brother Nathan recuperate in a hospital, Rifka and Saul stay in an inn. Once everyone is well enough, they travel to Warsaw.

On-board the train to Warsaw, Rifka chats with a Polish peasant who inadvertently gives Rifka ringworm. The family gets tickets for a steamship to take them to America but is told that Rifka will not be permitted to enter the US if she has ringworm. A woman from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society advises the family to go on ahead while Rifka stays behind in Antwerp, Belgium, which is friendly to refugees and has doctors who can heal her.

In Antwerp, Rifka is treated well, though she misses her family. The doctor’s treatments stop the ringworm, though Rifka’s hair, which has fallen out as a result of the infection, has not grown back. Nevertheless, doctors declare her fit to travel, and she boards a small steamship for the transatlantic voyage.

The steamship is very comfortable. Rifka enjoys the first part of the voyage and becomes close to a sailor named Pieter. However, a terrible storm damages the ship and injures many sailors. Pieter dies, and Rifka is devastated. Even worse, when she makes it to Ellis Island, New York, she is told she will not be able to enter the US. Doctors worry that she might not be cured of ringworm because her hair has not grown back. They also fear she will become a financial burden if her hair does not grow back and she is unable to find a husband.

Rifka is sent to a detention hospital, where she makes the best of her situation. She rejects the idea that she needs to prove she can find a husband. Instead, she spends her time helping at the hospital and befriends a young Russian peasant, Ilya, who is on hunger strike because he wants to return home. She encourages him to begin eating again and advises him that life in America will be good for him. At a hearing to determine whether Ilya and Rifka can enter the US, Rifka convinces officers that Ilya is ready to enter the country. Ilya reads poetry Rifka has written, impressing the officers, who agree to permit her to enter as well. In a dramatic moment, everyone discovers that Rifka’s hair has also begun to grow back. Rifka is reunited with her family and is finally able to begin a new life in the US.