Only by Blood


a novel by Renate Krakauer

Print: 978-1-77133-209-5 – $22.95
ePUB: 978-1-77133-210-1 – $9.99
PDF: 978-1-77133-212-5 – $9.99

320 Pages
April 28, 2015

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Only By Blood is a novel of the search for roots, mother-daughter love, and family reconciliation. A Polish woman receives puzzling news from her mother just before she dies. The novel weaves together the story of Mania a devout, Polish Christian doctor and her mother Krystyna. The two are exceptionally close, as Mania has never known her father. However, in spite of their closeness, Krystyna has always refused to tell Mania about their family or the time they spent together when Mania was small during the war. Their story is mainly told in the present as Mania deals with her mother’s aging, her death, and her final words, “Find them … make it right.” She wants to fulfill her mother’s last wishes, but has little idea of where to start. Never does she suspect that her search will take her across Poland, back in time and over the ocean.

Spanning over sixty years, this story tells about the lengths to which mothers will go in order to save their daughters and the secrets they will keep to protect them from pain. Set in the broader context of the fraught relationship of Poles and Jews during and after the Second World War, it depicts the circumstances that made some ordinary people behave heroically while others betrayed their friends and neighbours.

“Moving back and forth deftly over a sixty-year period, Only By Blood compellingly recreates the experience of two Polish families first trying to survive the Second World War and then suffering the unforeseen consequences of that survival. Krakauer’s novel is at once a lyrical testament to the power of love and an exciting page-turner, as full of twists and turns as any true-crime novel.”
—Susan Glickman, poet and author of The Violin Lover and The Tale Teller

“Only By Blood is another remarkable testament to a lost generation. In this vivid, moving and remarkable novel, Renate Krakauer captures what it means for families to be displaced, or to be torn asunder, the parts never to meet again, to lose all dignity, self-respect and self-regard and indeed, in many cases, to lose our most precious possession: life itself. Krakauer’s novel joins the many on this heavy but hopeful shelf of stories—hopeful because, without them, history is bound to repeat itself.”
— Joe Kertes, author of Gratitude and The Afterlife of Stars

“Set partly in Poland and partly in Canada, Only By Blood is a Holocaust story of survival and secrets, broken families, broken hearts.  It’s a familiar tale made new by the particular dramas of Krakauer’s characters. This is a novel to be savoured for its seriousness and depth of feeling.”
—Cynthia Holz, author of Benevolence

Only By Blood begins during the Holocaust in Poland, and, at first, it feels like a familiar story we have read about before, but soon the novel moves into a compelling mystery which then broadens into questions of identity and moral complexity. What does it mean to love and can love be unjustified, bordering on the criminal? Only by Blood illuminates aspects of the fallout from WW2 that have remained insufficiently explored in literature and depicts them in a powerful narrative.”
—Antanas Sileika, author of Underground and Woman in Bronze

“In Renata Krakauer’s Only By Blood, trauma embeds itself across generations in the fabric of lives, whether family members are cognizant of the role the past plays or whether they can only intuit its effect. Krakauer unfolds her narrative on Polish and Canadian soil during World War II and decades afterwards, fueled by the desire of the first generation to know and by the reticence of the survivors, both Polish Catholic and Jewish, to tell. As the truth is unveiled, this tug-and-pull, back-and-forth motion of the narrative moves deftly across the pages for the reader. Krakauer gives voice to the void.”
—Carol Lipszyc, author of The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories and Singing Me Home

Renate Krakauer’s career included senior roles in education, and municipal and provincial governments. She has published award-winning short fiction in a number of literary journals, among them Parchment, The Storyteller, and Foliate Oak; essays in the The Globe and Mail, journals and two anthologies; a memoir But I Had a Happy Childhood; and two plays. Only By Blood is her first novel. Renate lives in Toronto with her husband. She has three adult children, two stepsons, and six grandchildren.

The old man’s face is a weathered map of wrinkles chronicling a life of physical outdoor work. When Janusz Bojarski speaks, it is like history come to life. He tells Mania that he has lived through one of the most turbulent times in the history of the Polish people. Listening to the wheezing and rumbling in his lungs as she moves her stethoscope along his bony back, she can’t pay full attention to his words.

As she winds the pressure cuff around his arm, he says, “The Ukrainians burned our villages and expelled all us Polish people from our homes after the war. They thought that they’d have their own country, Ukraine. Ha! They came under the Soviet boot instead.”

Mania feels outraged on behalf of those who were dispossessed. “That must have been a terrible time.”

“They torched your mother’s home as well as mine you know,” he says, looking at her with his washed out blue eyes and fumbling with arthritic fingers at the buttons on his shirt.

Suddenly Mania is alert. “You know my mother?”

“Oh, yes, our families were neighbours in the village. Actually, she was a little older than me. It was her sister, Irena, who was my koleżanka. Is she here in Warsaw, too?”

Mania can’t imagine this wrinkled stranger and her mother and her mother’s sister as children, all playing together in a faraway poor village.

She shakes her head. “My mother lost touch with her sister. We don’t know where she is.”

A feeling of sadness flows through her. Can you miss someone you’ve never met? she wonders. Perhaps it’s only a recurrence of her childhood loneliness when she and her mother lived alone without any family connections at all. Her patient nods and his frail upper body sways as if he were about to fall off the examining table. “That’s what I mean. When we were expelled from our homes, families got broken up. You could say we were lucky to be resettled in other parts of Poland when so many were shot.”

Mania has no answer to this, embarrassed that she knows so little about
her family history and that of her people.

3 reviews for Only by Blood

  1. InannaWebmaster

    Only By Blood by Renate Krakauer
    reviewed by Carol Lipszyc
    Canadian Woman Studies / les cahiers de la femme 31.1,2 (Fall/Winter 2016)

    In Renata Krakauer’s Only By Blood, trauma embeds itself across generations in the fabric of lives, whether family members are cognizant of the role the past plays or whether they can only intuit its effect. Krakauer unfolds her narrative on Polish and Canadian soil during World War II and decades afterwards, fueled by the desire of the first generation to know and by the reticence of the survivors, both Polish Catholic and Jewish, to tell. As the truth is unveiled, this tug-and-pull, back-and-forth motion of the narrative moves deftly across the pages for the reader.

    At the core of the novel lives Roza, the character most fully fleshed out through her harrowing ordeals as a young Jewish woman in hiding and through Krakauer’s sensitive and credible depiction of Roza as a widow enduring the physical and mental assaults of aging. As the novel runs its tragic and near-redeeming course, we discover how the fates of Roza, her two daughters, Helen and Mania, and the two Polish Catholic sisters, Irena and Kyrstyna intertwine as they piece together fragments of memory, move beyond cultural and religious antipathy and mistrust, and unearth secrets they have buried. While we empathically share in their lives across time, we witness the sacrifices of motherhood during war and the courage it takes to love. And here we are further reminded that such love does not come without formidable cost. Selfless and selfish acts under duress become blurred so that the reader is unable to pass judgment on the wartime mothers by the novel’s end.

    In an early transitional scene, upon which the novel’s plot will hinge, Krystyna lies on her deathbed calling out feebly to her daughter, Mania, to “find them … make it right.” While Mania honours her mother’s wishes and solves the mystery of her own heritage, no one and no action can compensate for the injustices inflicted upon these victims of war. Yet Krakauer gives voice to the void which would otherwise emanate if her characters had not discovered the genealogy and humanity they share.

  2. InannaWebmaster

    Only By Blood by Renate Krakauer
    reviewed by The Miramichi Reader – February 28, 2016


    World War II. Christians. Jews. Nazis. Poles. Families destroyed, separated, torn apart. These are the background themes to Renate Krakauer’s debut novel Only by Blood (Inanna Publications, 2015). The story ferries back and forth between the past and present as different cultures, faiths and families intersect.


    The novel begins in Warsaw, Poland in 2005 when an elderly man tells his doctor (Mania): “I knew your mother’s family, you know.” Mania is taken aback since her mother (Krystyna) has never really talked about the past despite being 96 years old and in seemingly good health. Krystyna is the only family Mania knows and as such is very close to her. “You were her whole world, you know” an old friend of her mother’s tells her.Mania’s life is soon turned upside down when Krystyna falls in her apartment and her health rapidly starts to decline. Knowing her end is near, Krystyna’s last words to Mania are: “Find them…make it right.” Mania can only guess that the them are her mother’s two sisters who she had lost all track of due to the war separating them. This leads to her quest to find her mother’s family and to right whatever unimaginable wrongs her dear mother could have possibly thought she committed and has kept secret all those years.

    A Fascinating Debut Novel

    This book grabbed my attention right from the first to last page. Actually, it began with the telling front cover, that of a pair of elderly, time-worn female hands grasping both a crucifix and the Star of David. The pace of the novel was exceptional, for it had a well-maintained flow, despite alternating between the 1940s and the present. All the women are strong in character and often courageous while the men, such as Mania’s husband Witold and Rose’s husband Mark are very supportive and loving towards their respective wives. The addition of certain Polish words and phrases (there is a helpful glossary at the back of the book, a fact I would have appreciated knowing when I began the book!) making the conversations all the more authentic. Especially convincing are the scenes of the war years in Poland as Jews were being hunted down, forcing the fortunate few that escaped capture to hide in the woods, or in barns, sheds or attics, secretly supported by sympathetic Catholic Poles. It was a harrowing time and Ms. Krakauer’s research and background have well served her in recreating the horrors of Nazism.


    I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the other story lines in this novel so as to not spoil the enjoyment of reading this fine novel. I will say though that take away the background of the war, and you still have themes that are relevant today: mother-daughter relationships, the adopted child searching for her birth parents, and families reconciling with the past. A complex novel, to be sure, but Ms. Krakauer leaves it up to reader to apply these possibilities to their own lives. There is enough happening to Mania, Krystyna, and Rose to keep any reader’s attention for 300 pages!

    Renate Krakauer has written an exceptional debut novel, and as such I will happily add it to my 2016 long list for “The Very Best” Awards for fiction.

  3. InannaWebmaster

    Debut Author Draws on Family’s Wartime Experiences
    Only By Blood by Renate Krakauer
    reviewed by Dorothy Lichtblau – The Canadian Jewish News – February 22, 2016


    “I didn’t write a novel about the Holocaust but about post-Holocaust trauma and mostly about reconciliation,” states Renate Krakauer about her debut novel, Only By Blood.
    And the result is a sensitive portrayal not only of the consequences of unbridled racism and genocide, but also of those who choose to be humane and the possibility of putting things right. Krakauer has portrayed these themes not only through well-drawn characters and an action-packed plot but also via relationships that raise questions about identity, love and what one may be driven to do under duress.

    A significant part of the story is set during World War II and Krakauer vividly describes the widespread devastation, loss and grief by drawing us into the lives of two Polish families; one Jewish and the other Catholic. However, the tale spans 60 years and travels back and forth between Canada and Poland. Complex and dynamic it reads like a mystery novel.

    Though Krakauer is a child survivor of the Holocaust, she says Only By Blood is not an account of her or her family’s experiences. She admits that she drew on aspects of her family’s history to write the narrative.

    Born in 1941, Krakauer was an infant when her parents made the difficult decision to leave her in the care of a Polish woman of their acquaintance, who lived on the outskirts of a village in eastern Poland. She says her early memories are not tainted by war or terror, though her parents’ recollections are quite different. Inadequately clothed, always starving, her mother and father hid separately in cramped conditions always under the threat of discovery by the Nazis.

    Krakauer was an oblivious three-year-old when the war ended. “It was when we came to Canada that I stopped being happy,”she says. She describes herself as, “an insecure immigrant.” Though only a school-aged child, she was, “very aware of being different from the general population and the established Jewish population.” An only child and bereft of an extended family, the young Renate felt alone.

    Meanwhile, her parents devastated by recent losses, had no time to devote to healing. They had to build a new life. They founded their future on the one asset that was not taken from them. University educated Poles, Charlotte and William Tannenzapf had worked in their respective professions (pharmacy and engineering) until the war erupted. Eventually, they were able to use their professional knowledge “to carve out a niche for themselves” in Toronto.

    The idea for Only By Blood came to Krakauer about eight years ago when the descendants of her mother’s long estranged brother found and contacted her. Sadly, her mother and uncle had died before this reconnection took place. Nevertheless, Krakauer discovered cousins she had long wished for. Yet, what moved her most was that her father, who had vehemently reproached his brother-in-law for becoming a traitor to the Jews during a time of rampant anti-Semitism, was willing to meet his Polish granddaughter and her husband and to pronounce, “I feel an affinity with you.”
    Krakauer says, “I was amazed. A man of 98 was able to change his mind.”

    This unexpected event and reconciliation seeded a story that began to take form during writing courses Krakauer took at the Haliburton School of the Arts and Humber School for Writers.

    Through fiction she explored the meaning of identity and how it is shaped. She also looked at racism and its relationship to identity. “For Hitler, if you had one drop of Jewish blood you were tainted.”

    Krakauer also felt impelled to examine the lives of women of the Holocaust. “My mother saved my life. I always thought that women were the unsung heroes of the Holocaust. I realized I wanted to write about a Jewish woman and a Catholic woman, each of whom saved her daughter’s life.” To deepen her understanding of the time Krakauer researched survivors’ accounts.

    Only By Blood begins in a doctor’s office in contemporary Poland. Mania is finishing her examination of an elderly patient who tells her he knew her mother’s sister when they were both young and still living in their home village. Mania is stunned by this coincidence. Saddened by the reminder that she has not met her aunt and knows little about her family, she decides to once more try to learn about her family’s past when she next sees her mother. However, Mania does not realize her plan. Krystyna, her mother, becomes ill and dies without revealing more about her history. Yet, her dying words are a plea. She asks Mania to, “Find them and make it right.” And thus Mania begins her quest.

    Mania is the central character of the novel but Krystyna and Rose, a Polish Jew and a survivor, are its subject matter. “Both are strong, competent, loving woman willing to do anything for their daughters,” Krakauer says. “However, Krystyna was not traumatized by the events of World War II, as was Rose.
    Krystyna’s losses were self-inflicted. She made choices. Rose didn’t make choices. She suffered the loss of her family because she was a Jew. Each woman is guarding a secret.”

    Yet the story cannot be described simply as a mystery though it is a page-turner. Essentially, one can say Only By Blood is a poignant and compassionate inquiry into human commonalities that transcend religious and cultural differences even under horrific circumstances.

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