Thirteen-year-old Ilse Blumenthal is the precocious only daughter of a Jewish father and Christian mother, and she is about to leave Hitlerís Germany for the safety of Algeria and a new life with her Uncle Willy. Her father, an angst-ridden Bolshevik, left his wife and daughter years earlier, unable to fulfill the role of husband and father. Lore, Ilseís mother, has spent all of her money on obtaining papers to send Ilse to Algeria, and, without enough money to secure papers for herself, sends all her hopes for the future with her daughter. She knows life will be difficult for her child without any parents with her, but also knows Ilse must leave to avoid being discovered as a half-Jew.
Algeria is a wonderful haven for Ilse, but once the war begins, she loses this safety net. Her Uncle Willy joins the French Foreign Legion and sends her back to Europe. Ilse joins her father in France, and they take up the uncomfortable relationship of those who have only a biological connection. Lore, meanwhile, is nursemaid to a German family whose son, Nicolai, is a contemporary of Ilse leading an entirely different life: he is forced to join the Hitler Youth, though he secretly despises Hitler, the Youth, and the war. Fascinated by Lore, he eventually learns the secrets of her past: her marriage to a Jew and her daughter, who has been lost to her because of the war. His father is away in the Germany army, an entity he also despises, and his mother carries on an affair with a powerful German officer while her husband is away. Nicolai thinks for himself but is conflicted by the pro-Hitler sentiment he is forced to endure every day and wishes to subtly sabotage the movement to which he is forced to pledge undying fidelity.
After a failed attempt to escape Paris just before the Germans march into the city, Ilseís father is arrested, Ilse moves through a series of safe havens, joins the Resistance, and navigates a world where the flawed adults make mistakes that are magnified by the situations in which they live. Ilse and Nicolai come to maturity in the harshest of circumstances, and author Monique Charlesworth is adept at showing us how both children and adults cope in an immensely trying time. This novel of World War II is not about heroes or victims; it is about human beings, coping the best they can and many times failing. The beauty and the agony of the novel is that it shows us how easily anyone could find themselves making similar choices in similar times. The Childrenís War shows us children failed by their parents, navigating the most difficult emotional terrain imaginable without guidance. That Ilse and Nicolai survive as they do is remarkable, for they are children of war who will wonder, for the rest of their lives, why their parents made the choices that they did, and why they will have to live with the consequences forever.