Letters from Rifka

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Letters from Rifka
Author Karen Hesse
Country Russia
Genre Children's historical novel, epistolary novel
Publisher Henry Holt & Co. (Macmillan)
Publication date
July 15, 1992[1]
Media type Print
Pages 148 pp
ISBN 9780805019643
OCLC 25205387
LC Class PZ7.H4364 Le 1992[2]

Letters From Rifka is a children's historical novel by Karen Hesse, published by Holt in 1992. It features a Jewish family's emigration from Russia in 1919, to Belgium and ultimately to the U.S., from the perspective of daughter Rifka, based on the personal account by Hesse's great-aunt Lucille Avrutin.[3]

Hesse and Letters won the 2012 Phoenix Award from the Children's Literature Association, recognizing the best children's book published twenty years earlier that did not win a major award.[4] Among contemporary honors it won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award in category Children's Literature.[5]

The protagonist's name, Rifka, is the East European Jewish version of Rebecca (Rivká in Modern Israeli Hebrew).


During the Russian Civil War of 1919, Rifka and her family must flee Russia because the Russian army are after her brothers. She tells her story in a series of letters to a cousin named Tovah who remains behind in Russia, written in the blank spaces of an edition of Pushkin's poetry. Rifka, her parents, and her brothers, Nathan and Saul, escape Russia, hoping to join the three older sons who have been living in America. Along the way, they face many obstacles such as cruel officials, her mom, dad and older brother all catch typhus. They suffer through hunger, theft, and Rifka gets a skin disease that forces her to stay behind in Belgium while her family travels to America. In Belgium people are kind to Jewish people and she is able to recover from her illness. Once she recovers she can leave Belgium to travel to America to meet her family. She travels to America by large ship where she befriends and develops romantic feelings for Pieter, a sailor. During the voyage a dangerous storms occurs killing Pieter. She arrives to Ellis island where she learns that her skin disease has returned and she can't enter America yet. While she is detained at Ellis Island, she finds she has a talent for nursing others to health. On Ellis island Rifka meets a new friend named Ilya, but he first does not talk to her nor will he won't eat, so everyone thinks he's a simpleton. Once Rifka becomes better friends with him, she discovers that he is very smart. She helps him understand that his uncle is not cruel and wants him to come to America because he loves Ilya, and Ilya reads from Rifka's Pushkin poetry book. He passes the "Test" and makes it to America. Rifka gets over her ringworm, and gets to America to be with her family.


Kirkus Reviews called it "an unforgettable picture of immigrant courage, ingenuity, and perseverance."[6] while Publishers Weekly wrote "Hesse's vivacious tale colorfully and convincingly refreshes the immigrant experience."[7]


  1. ^ Letters from Rifka. Google Books. Retrieved 2013-03-03. With linked preview, pages 1–15.
  2. ^ "Letters from Rifka / Karen Hesse". Library of Congress Catalog Record. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  3. ^ Karen Hesse, "Author's Note", Letters from Rifka (Puffin Books, 1993; ISBN 0140363912), pp. ix–x.
  4. ^ "Phoenix Award Brochure 2012". Children's Literature Association. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
    See also the current homepage, "Phoenix Award".
  5. ^ "NJBA Winners". Jewish Books Council. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  6. ^ "Letters from Rifka". www.kirkusreviews.com. Kirkus Media LLC. 15 July 1992. Retrieved 27 September 2015. 
  7. ^ "Letters from Rivka". www.publishersweekly.com. PWxyz LLC. Retrieved 27 September 2015. 

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