This is considered a retelling of the fairy tale referred to in the book’s title, using the primeval Bialowieza Forest in Eastern Poland during World War II as the setting. It follows the struggle for survival of two Jewish children (aged 7 and 11), their father, and stepmother, as they try to outrun and outwit the Nazis. After a hasty and heartbreaking decision to try and give the children a chance to avoid being caught, the adults separate themselves from the children, leaving them alone in the forest. As the adults speed away on a motorcycle before the Nazis down the road notice what they are doing, the children are given last-second instructions to find a farm or someone to take them in, to never let anyone see the little boy without clothes on, and to never use their real names. Instead, their names should be “Hansel” and “Gretel”. They promise to come back and find the children. Of course, the adults know that keeping that promise is very improbable.
They do end up finding an old woman who lives in a little hut outside the village of Piaski who is willing to take them in. She is called Magda the Witch by the villagers, as she is rumored to come from Gypsies and serves as the local midwife. Add in her withered and stooped appearance, her gift of “sight”, the extremely large bread oven in her tiny home (which was given to her after she delivered the local baker’s set of twins), her lovely widowed/pregnant niece and the local woodsman who loves her. The multiple connections to the fabled story threaded throughout the book add something special to the tale. Rather than the scary being we have become accustomed to in the witch’s role, however, in actuality, Magda is a kindly and wise woman who turns out to be the children’s savior on several occasions. She also serves as the voice of narrator for this tale.
The majority of the story takes place in the little village of Piaski, and the outlying forest which it is nestled within. Piaski’s population (minus the Gypsies, Jews, simpletons, and other “undesirables” who have already been taken away or killed) is down to around 50 persons, all of whom live in a constant state of fear of the Nazi security police who rule over the town. Among the villagers, of course, common to any town of that time period, are collaborators–whom the townsfolk fear as much as the SS–as well as members of the resistance who meet in secret with partisans in the forest.
Among the villagers, moral/ethical choices have to be made which test the limits of the human capacity for committing acts of bravery or falling to cowardice. You can see how in certain circumstances the fear people carry, if they aren’t able to overcome it, could cause them to make decisions they normally wouldn’t make and which would be impossible to live with later. Either way, they may have been doomed. For some, their fight for survival could have been in vain because of later succumbing to the weight of their own guilt. The ingenuity and skill for finding the balance required to survive could bring anyone to the breaking point.
In saying that, however, you can’t explain away true evil. The SS were pure evil. It’s hard to imagine so many disturbed people coming out of the woodwork and using war as the excuse and opportunity to let their evil out to play. It’s unfathomable. Medical experiments, the unfeeling methods of killing millions, the ability to intentionally cause pain or humiliation or degradation to other human beings, even holding the thought that others are subhuman, the disconnect that must be there in order to pick up a baby and smash its head against something in order to kill it, or to rape a child, etc., and the ability to enjoy doing these unconscionable things. There never will be an explanation for it other than pure evil.
“This is Hell. God couldn’t invent anything worse. The Nazis have exceeded the imagination of God.”
“God shouldn’t have let this killing happen. God should have stopped it.”
“God didn’t come down and kill us. I don’t see God shooting children and priests. None of us met God beating up Jews and shoving them into railroad cars. This is men doing the murdering. Talk to men about their evil, kill the evil men, but pray to God. You can’t expect God to come down and do our living for us. We have to do that ourselves.”
The story goes back and forth as we see how everyone tries to make their way back to each other. At times, it is Tarantino-esque as their lives intertwine without them being wise to it. It’s frustrating as the reader to see their missed opportunities to find out information, but it fits in so well with the subject matter, the time period, the region, and all the questions that have gone unanswered for the multitudes of people wishing for some knowledge of their loved ones’ fate.
The children are obviously forced to grow up quickly in order to survive. They are incredibly brave and intelligent. Even in normal circumstances, children back then were much different than children today. I think the majority of them started off more practical out of necessity. My own father was around the same age as these kids during WW2, and although he was from America and out of any physical danger, he was born during the Depression and lived in a cave house dug out of the dirt for his early years, and he was already working outside of the home at age 9, and it was expected. That would be unheard of today. I think his experience as a child of doing what had to be done is what made him the kind of guy who could do pretty much anything and had many skills as an adult. He also was able to roll with the punches, no matter what life threw at him.
Of course, I have no idea how he would have handled seeing what his European counterparts had to see/do/live through. The horrors faced in Europe (and later in the Pacific) were on a scale so far above what anyone should be expected to face. It truly was hell on earth. I’m amazed by the strength of the human spirit and how people are able to walk through hell and come out the other side.
“See the stars? I know what they are. All those stars in that big streak that goes over the whole sky? You see them? Those are all the Jews who’ve died. All of them died and went up in the air, and the stars are the stars that they wore on their coats. The stars on the coats come off when their souls float up and the stars live up in the sky forever.”
“No it isn’t. It’s lovely. They’ll be there forever.”