“A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Tunku Varadarajan of the book by Rebecca Frankel titled “Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love”:

“It was a very happy little Jewish town,” says a former resident, reflecting on his childhood in Zhetel—today a hamlet in western Belarus but a part of Poland in the years before World War II.

Located in one of the most map-mangled regions of Eastern Europe, Zhetel had—at different times in its history—been a part of Lithuania, Russia, the Swedish Empire and even the short-lived Belorussian People’s Republic. Yet one foreign occupation was to prove more fateful than all others. For three demonic years, in 1941-44, Zhetel was in German hands. By the time the Nazis fled from a rampant Red Army, the little Polish town had only 200 Jews left alive—all of whom emerged from the dense forest outside town, where they’d hidden themselves from August 1942.

There had been 4,500 Jews in Zhetel when the war began. “Into the Forest” is Rebecca Frankel’s account of their liquidation, conducted by the Nazis with characteristic cruelty and efficiency, in this case with the help of local Poles and Lithuanian auxiliaries. But her admirable book—painstaking in its detail, harrowing in the stories it tells—is about more than the horrors of genocide. It is, as its subtitle tells us, also a story “of survival, triumph, and love.”

For all its narrative anguish and its inventories of Nazi barbarism, this is an uplifting tale, suffused with a karmic righteousness that is, at times, exhilarating. The heroes of Ms. Frankel’s book—the blessed vehicles for the survival, triumph and love of which she writes—are Morris and Miriam Rabinowitz, who were raising two daughters in comfortable (but modest) circumstances when the Germans occupied Zhetel in 1941.

Miriam, 33, owned a small patent-medicine shop, while Morris, 35, was a contractor in the lumber trade. His occupation gave him near-encyclopedic knowledge of the nearby Bialowieza Forest and an extensive range of contacts among farmers and foresters. Their daughters, Rochel and Tania, were ages 6 and 4, and the family was cocooned in a network of close relatives—which was the norm in small-town Jewish Poland. Life was a constant and agreeable jostle of grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and in-laws. This deep sense of kinship, a font of comfort in peacetime, would become a source of heartbreak when the Nazis began to kill the Jews of Zhetel and neighboring towns.

Ms. Frankel, a former executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine, knows how to spin a saga expertly. And she does so here with just the right infusion of sentiment, careful to steer clear of mawkishness and exaggeration….She divides her book into three parts—which describe the odyssey of the Rabinowitz family before, during and after the Nazi occupation of Zhetel.

In the first part we learn of the family and of the town in which they live. What stops the narrative from seeming like a fairy tale is the foreknowledge that the hounds of hell are about to descend on this quiet corner of Poland. Zhetel had two churches and four synagogues, a kino (or cinema) and a local soccer team. Ms. Frankel quotes an old survivor who tells us that it also had “its own matchmaker, joker, fool, and Shabbat gentile”—a Christian Pole who’d perform chores for Jews on the sabbath….

The Soviets took eastern Poland in 1939…and while life under the communists was uncomfortable—religious services were prohibited—the Jews of Zhetel were left alone. After Hitler declared war on his erstwhile Soviet allies in 1941, the Wehrmacht drove the Red Army out of Poland. Zhetel fell to the Nazis, who quickly established a ghetto in a cramped section of town into which all Jews were herded. In April 1942, the Germans killed nearly 1,000 Jews in a single day. Four months later, in August, they gunned down, gassed or beat to death some 3,000 more.

Days later, after hiding for nearly a week in a tunnel under their ghetto dwelling, the Rabinowitz family fled into the Bialowieza Forest. The days spent in the tunnel before their escape had been wretched. Ms. Frankel writes of how an infant had begun to cry while a Nazi posse looked for Jews in the room right above. “One moment he was crying,” she tells us, “and the next he wasn’t. The mother had muffled him with her hands until he no longer drew breath, to keep them from being discovered.”

Ms. Frankel’s chronicle of their fugitive life in the forest is gripping, a master class in conveying tension. Gripping, too, are her accounts of the moral compromise that Jews had to make to avoid capture. Newborn babies, whose crying endangered their families, were left out in the frost to die; women contracted “forest marriages” to avoid being raped….“In the forest,” says Ms. Frankel, “there were far fewer saints than survivors.” After all, you couldn’t afford to be morally exquisite if the bounty advertised by the Nazis to Polish neighbors for information on hiding Jews was, sometimes, a single cup of sugar….

This is, Ms. Frankel says, “a book built on memory,” as she concedes that “it’s a delicate business, rooting around other people’s pasts.” But the glory of this story lies in the fact that the Rabinowitz family had much more than a past. They had a future. They did more than survive two winters in the forest; they lived to emigrate to America, where they prospered—giving thanks each day for the chance at a life in which they never had to hide again.


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