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Table of Contents
Once Upon a Time
Hansel and Gretel
Brother and Sister
The Village Piaski
In the Cage
December 10 , 1943
Christmas Eve, 1943
March 11, 1944
March 21, 1944
The Wheat Field
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel
“A provocative transformation of the classic fairy tale into a haunting survival story ... darkly enchanting.... No reader who picks up this inspiring novel will put it down until the final pages.” —Publishers Weekly
“It’s the scariest of all fairy tales, and it’s retold here with gripping realism.... The Grimms’ story is always there like a dark shadow intensifying the drama as the searing narrative transforms the old archetypes.”
“Purely imaginative ... The witch Hansel and Gretel find in the woods is a marvelously drawn old crone ... who takes them in and shelters them.... [Murphy’s] characters speak to us with terrible prescience.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Filled with the breathtaking, sometimes death-defying contortions of war.” —Los Angeles Times
“Unusually gripping ... Lyrical, haunting, unforgettable.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A page-turner as well as a moving testament to the human will to do good and survive despite all odds. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal
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First published in Penguin Books 2003
Copyright © Louise Murphy, 2003
All rights reserved
In this novel Louise Murphy uses the art of fiction to cast new light on the horrifying facts of the Holocaust.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Murphy, Louise, 1943-
The true story of Hansel and Gretel / Louise Murphy.
eISBN : 978-1-101-49562-9
1. Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)—Fiction. 2. World War, 1939-1945—Fiction.
3. Brothers and sisters—Fiction. 4. Jewish families—Fiction. 5. Children—Fiction.
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For Christopher, artist, friend, and son, and because we grew up together
Caught between green earth and blue sky, only truth kept me sane, but now lies disturb my peace. The story has been told over and over by liars and it must be retold. Do not struggle when the hook of a word pulls you into the air of truth and you cannot breathe.
For a little while, I ask this of you.
Come with me.
Once Upon a Time
“You’ve no choice. Look back.”
“No.” The man looked over his shoulder and saw the lights of another motorcycle—two—no—three motorcycles following them. He couldn’t go faster on the dirt road. The ruts were frozen and the machine would tip into a ditch. The dark forest imprisoned the road. He could smell snow coming.
The children in the sidecar stared into the night, eyes slitted against the wind. The girl’s hair wrapped around her head like a scarf and was the only covering that protected her thin throat. The boy was rolled low into the metal egg, his curly head dark in the moonlight, so thin he took almost no space at all.
The woman squeezed the man’s sides until he grunted.
It was unfair. He adapted. He became like everyone else. College in France. Work as an engineer. New knowledge for new times and new people. Rejecting the sidelocks of his father. Leaving the study of dead laws and old men swaying in the temple. His friends had been Christian Poles, and none of them had been religious either.
But the world of intellectual talk and scientific study exploded. He fled from western Poland not in an airplane, defying the old laws of gravity, but crawling along in a peasant’s cart pulled by a spavined horse bought with all the silver spoons his wife owned.
Her silver had protected them from being in the city when the Nazis arrived, but it did not protect them from the bombs. He buried his wife beside the road after the strafing, when she lay with her beautiful torso facing the sky, dress torn, nipples like dead eyes, unblinking.
A quick learner, he survived the Russians by being a mechanic for them. He survived the Bialystok ghetto by being a mechanic for the Nazis. He had remarried this woman who now clutched his sides until he couldn’t breathe. He had gotten all of them out of the ghetto before the August deportations, hiding the children in tires strapped to the back of a truck, cutting their stepmother’s hair and giving her men’s clothes, passing through the barbed-wire fences as mechanics and hiding in a grease pit. Knowing that the trains were loading the other Jews. Hearing the screams and shots all night. Hearing them when he was awake. Hearing them in his dreams when he slept. He would not look over his shoulder again. The pursuing Nazis would be closer and he couldn’t bear much more.
“Your children will be dead if they catch us.” The woman clung tighter. “They’ll shoot us beside the road.”
“No.” He howled it, the shouted word giving him back for a moment his life that was lost in the whispering years of submission and hiding. “Someone could take pity on them. The girl is eleven, old enough to be useful. They may have luck.”
The girl in the sidecar looked back, her bony shoulder rising, blue eyes almost white in the moonlight. Three lights. It was almost over. She wrapped her arm tighter around her seven-year-old brother. She saw his throat move and knew what he was doing. She had taught him how.
He had saved his spit for over an hour. She had told him to think of biting into a lemon to make the spit flow, but he couldn’t remember lemons. He thought of vinegar. His spit spurted and he had extra juice at the end of the swallow. A mouthful of spit swallowed slowly was almost like drinking soup. Hot soup with potatoes mashed in it. He felt his stomach contract and willed it to stop aching.
“We have to hide the motorcycle and run into the forest.” The woman would not shut up.
“With the children,” the father shouted.
The boy listened. The Stepmother would get her way. She wasn’t their real mother.
“They’ll bring dogs. The children will slow us. Leave the children, and we’ll all have a chance.”
The father hated her with such a surge of his blood that he almost stopped the motorcycle so he could choke her. Beat her. He clung to the anger as long as he could because it squeezed the truth out, but the feeling seeped away and he concentrated on the road. He needed a curve, a hill, something to block the view so he could put the children down.
“It isn’t deep enough,” he said of the first curve. When he didn’t slow for the third, she gripped his sides again and howled like a dog.
The father braked on the fourth curve and leapt off. He grabbed the girl and wrenched her from the sidecar. The boy staggered when he was set on the road.
“Go,” he whispered. “Go into the woods. Run.”
The woman sat with her head down, but she called out to them. “Hide until the other motorcycles are past. Then find someone. Find a farmer who will feed you.”
The girl shook her head. “They’ll report us. If they don’t, the Nazis will kill them.”
Her stepmother looked back. She had to end it.
“You don’t look Jewish. You’re blond. Your brother—” She stopped and stared behind at the machines coming toward them. What was, was. “Don’t let him take his pants down in front of anyone. They’ll see he’s circumcised. Do you hear me?”
“Our names?” The girl clung to the sidecar.
“Never say them. You don’t have Jewish names anymore.”
“Who are we?” The boy smiled. It was interesting. He wouldn’t be himself.
“Any name. Any name that’s—” the stepmother paused and she couldn’t think of Polish names. Her mind was blank. She knew it was hunger. Six hundred calories a day for two years—on the good days, on the days when there was something left to sell. Sometimes she went blank.
The boy took his sister’s hand and moved toward the woods. “Who are we?” he called back.
The Stepmother moaned and slapped her face viciously. The man got on the motorcycle and they moved off slowly so the wheels wouldn’t catch in the ruts.
Slamming her fist against her head, their Stepmother shook loose an old memory.
“Hansel and Gretel,” she screamed over her shoulder at the children who were now almost hidden in the trees. “You are Hansel and Gretel. Remember.”
The man couldn’t look back. He gunned the engine and moved away from that place. The two adults had become the lure that would lead the hunters away from the children. The gas would last for another ten miles. Their motorcycle could stay ahead with the weight of the children gone. The Nazis mustn’t know that anyone had been left behind.
Hansel and Gretel
The children stood near the trees and looked after their father and stepmother until the three motorcycles following droned louder.
“Quick.” The girl helped her brother climb over a log and push through the piles of crackling leaves.
They moved back into the darkness between the trees. The boy stared up and saw only a few stars. Clouds obscured the moon, and as the two children staggered through the deep layers of leaves, stiff-legged from being folded into the sidecar, they heard an owl call nearly over their heads. The boy almost cried out, but remembered the need to be silent, and bit his lip so hard it left a half-moon line of red when he unfastened his teeth.
“Lie down.” His sister pushed him into the leaves and lay beside him.
Their voices would not have been heard over the roar of the motorcycles that came slowly but steadily down the rutted road. One in front. Two behind in perfect formation. Precision even at midnight on a dirt road while chasing subhumans in eastern Poland.
The boy lifted his head above the leaves and watched. He stared admiringly at the clean uniforms, the smooth metal bowl of helmet. The three motorcycles swept past, and the child marked down in his mind the way the Nazis sat perfectly straight and weren’t afraid of being seen.
The noise of the engines grew fainter until there was complete silence. The girl felt panic rising. The silence was unlike the constant moaning and screams in the ghetto. Too many people in such little space. Always someone dying or losing their last rag of dignity and howling for food or fighting or weeping. It had never been silent for so much as a second.
She felt the tears run down her cheeks, and her brother watched her with interest.
“They didn’t see us. I was quiet.”
She nodded. “You were good—” She paused. The new name. It took a moment. “Hansel.”
“What’s your name?”
“Maybe I’m Gretel.”
“Gretel is a girl’s name.”
“All right. I’m Hansel.” He smiled. He was not himself anymore. He was not the little Jew who hid in the grease pit. He wondered if he could change his stomach to a stomach full of food. He tried to imagine it but couldn’t.
“We can’t lie here. They could come back. They could have dogs.”
“Wait a minute, Gretel.”
She didn’t flinch when she heard her new name, but her lips quivered for a second. She felt herself wanting to relax so she could cry again, but there wasn’t time. “Come on.”
He followed her back into deeper darkness, walking with one bony fist smaller than a windfall apple pushed deep into his gut to stop the pain. The brush was thinning, and the enormous height of the trees rose over their heads in a canopy which allowed only moss and low plants to grow underneath.
They had gone only a few steps when he stopped, holding her back like an anchor. She turned and waited. She knew his nature. It was impossible to move him until he was ready.
He was making a great decision. He had some in his pocket, but it would mean breaking the most sacred law. You never touched the last piece of bread until everything had been done. The swallowing of spit. The fist in the gut. Forcing yourself to feel the stomach pain as if it belonged to someone else standing beside you. Father had taught him how to do these things.
Only when the pain gave up could you touch the last piece of bread. Gretel said it was the law. You had to eat it slowly, not gobble it. It was how they did it. He didn’t know why.
He took the piece of bread out and measured it with his eyes. His father had stolen it from a pile that had been forgotten in the burning and killing. Like all the ghetto bread, there was a dark mark where the metal rods that pressed into the bread while it baked left lines. There had to be lines on the bread so it could be divided evenly.
Both children leaned toward the bread until their noses almost touched the hard lump. They stared at it with the gaze of connoisseurs. It was slightly larger than the piece that Hansel usually managed to save.
He looked at Gretel appraisingly. She might forbid it, but it was his right. No one could take it from you. Even if they were sick or starving or hungrier than you. The Stepmother had taught them. Your bread was your bread.
He pinched off a tiny piece and deliberately let his fingers open so the bread fell to the leaves under their feet.
Gretel’s eyes widened. The hunger tore through her, and her hand twitched but she did not grab the bread from Hansel. He picked off another piece and threw it back toward the road.
“Why?” Her mouth grew wetter as she thought of going back, finding the breadcrumb, holding it in her mouth.
“If we leave bread, they can find us. Later.” He began walking into the dark and every ten steps he dropped another crumb.
“The leaves will cover it up.”
“Stepmother can find a crumb on the street, in the middle of bodies thrown out in the morning. She’ll smell it.”
Gretel nodded. The Stepmother always found crumbs, pressed them into a flat pancake with water, and divided it meticulously among the four of them. It was true.
“She’ll find the bread.”
Gretel couldn’t really believe it. It would be too hard to find in the leaves. The Stepmother was used to concrete pavement where crumbs lay naked. But the law was the law. It was his bread. No one else could eat it, and if he chose to waste it, she guessed it was his right, although no person had ever done that as long as she could remember.
There were memories. Far back. Food on a table. A hand pulling off a piece of bread carelessly, without measuring. Candles. The bread—challah—the word stuck in her mind. She savored the sound—it reminded her of someone—not her mother—
A man. White hair and beard. She could shut her eyes and see him smiling down at her, and he was saying something—asking her to do something.
The memory was gone. It bothered her. She had lost so many memories during the ghetto.
Forcing her mind, she saw the curtains again and felt the warmth of summer air moving the cloth like mist over the window. Then she quite deliberately shut the door in her mind. It wasn’t good to think of things that were too far off, and now it was the first day of November. Warmth was too far in the future.
She turned and plunged past the trunks of trees that became larger as the children moved deeper. Her hair rose on the back of her neck. They were bigger than any trees she had ever seen. They weren’t like the spindly, friendly, little trees in the gardens by the Bialy Lake in the city. Those were trees that men had planted, little umbrellas of trees, in pleasing patterns following the paths.
Gretel touched the bark of a tree, and as she did the owl hooted again, deeper in the forest now. “Listen, Hansel.”
They stood and stared ahead into the gloom. Had the trees been in full leaf, the darkness under the canopy would have been absolute, but only the scudding clouds blocked the moonlight fitfully.
“The owl is leading us,” he said. “Listen.”
They waited, breathing shallowly, and heard the call, mournful as the voice of the mad cantor who had stood calling on the corner of Pilnesky Street under their window.
Gretel smiled. “We’ll go that way.”
Hansel nodded, only partly attentive, his whole body tense with the work of giving up his bread, crumb by crumb.
They walked on for a long time, and the way did not get more difficult. The ground was soft at times, but their slight weight made only dents. They came to a stream and both knelt and drank the icy water.
“We ought to wade in it so if there are dogs they can’t sniff us.” Hansel held only one crumb now, and he did not want to eat it. It wouldn’t be perfect if he did. He thought of the soldiers riding in formation, so clean, so unafraid.
“You do it too.” He cut the crumb with his thumbnail and gave one part to her. Gretel took it carefully, ignoring the hunger in herself so she could behave with dignity.
“It’s still my bread.” He picked the other piece out from under his nail. He had to do it quickly or he would put it in his mouth. “You have to do what I say.”
“Like this.” He threw it hard and it went into the flowing water of the stream. She threw her bread too, and they stood watching the water.
“They do that, some people,” she said, an old story she had heard coming back to her.
“Throw bread on the water.”
“It carries their sins away.”
“What are sins?”
“Bad things you do.”
Hansel thought about it. “How much bread did they throw?”
“Maybe a whole marked piece.”
“From the end to the mark?” He couldn’t believe it.
“I don’t know. We can’t walk in the water, Hansel. It’s too cold, and we’d get sick.”
“The dogs will smell us.” The sound of barking always made him have to pee.
“No dogs. We’d hear them.”
She was so tired, and she knew he was too, but they had to find someone. A farmer who had a lot of food. If they didn’t they’d die. But if the farmer was too afraid of death, then he would report them.
“I have to pee. Wait.” He pulled down his pants.
“No.” She grabbed him. “Not even in front of me. You have to go behind a tree.”
He pulled his pants up and began to walk around a tree. “It’s dark.”
“Shut up. You can’t let anyone see it.”
“You’ve seen it before.” He pushed hard to finish and go back to her.
“You can’t pee in front of anyone. Not ever again.”
“Why did they do it?”
“Why did they make my penis this way?”
“Because they had to. They didn’t know it’d be like this.”
She couldn’t walk much farther. They followed the owl’s call until another owl began to call off to their right, and then a third owl answered on the left. It was too confusing.
“There aren’t any farmers in the forest,” she told him. “We have to go to sleep and then find a farm tomorrow, when we get to the end of the trees.”
“How long will that take?”
She stared ahead. The moon was covered with dense clouds now and the air smelled of snow. She knew it wasn’t safe to go to sleep when it was so cold, but she walked on until there was a small clearing in the middle of circling trees. The sky was dark and high up.
“Help me.” She kicked leaves into a pile in the middle of the clearing. He got on all fours and pushed leaves, sneezing from the dust. When the pile was large enough for her, she got on all fours with him.
“Now we’re like little rabbits. We’ll make a hole in the leaves and sleep under them.”
“Rabbits live under the ground. Uncle—”
“Don’t say any names.”
“I didn’t say it.” He was nearly in tears.
“Just don’t. Come on. Crawl in the leaves. It’ll make us warmer.”
It was harder to crawl in than she thought it would be. The leaves moved away from them and fell off, but finally she lay beside him and pulled as many leaves over them as she could, covering even their heads.
“Roll over.” She wrapped herself around him, and his back and her stomach grew a little warmer where they were pressed together. “Now go to sleep.”
He was cold, but everyone was cold for part of the year. It was how things were. He fell asleep quickly and his fist, pressed again into his gut, relaxed and softened.
She felt him relax under her arm, and then she fell asleep too, but not before she heard it. At first she thought it was the owls, but the sound was too great for the wings of owls. Then she thought it was the wind in the trees, but that wasn’t it either.
It went on until she was too tired to wonder and fell asleep, with the sound of great wings over them, beating, cracking the air, the sound continuing as the sky darkened and the first dust of snow fell onto the wings of the angels and through the moving sinew and muscle and feather onto the pile of leaves which covered the children.
Hansel woke first, but he couldn’t bear to move. He was terribly cold, but the air outside the leaves was colder. He wasn’t hungry now and smiled at the feel of his stomach with no pain in it.
Gretel stirred and the leaves moved. A leaf with a few flakes of snow on its brown surface fell beside Hansel’s face and he stuck his tongue out and touched the white crystals.
Gretel was awake instantly when she heard his voice.
He lay, ashamed. He had spoken aloud.
They curled under the leaves, nearly frozen, and listened, but there was no sound. Even the birds had left the forest. Not a footstep, not a crack of a twig.
Gretel pushed a few leaves away and stared out at the floor of the forest. It was covered with a dust of snow. She craned her neck and examined the whole surface of the clearing. Not a single footprint marking the snow. They were alone.
Unless someone hid behind the trees. She shut her eyes. It was different in the country. It was harder to hide. It was bigger.
“I’ll get up first. If anything happens, just lie still.” Her mouth barely moved near his ear.
She rolled to the side and pulled up on her knees and then stood stiffly. Nothing. No shouts of “Raus! Raus!” or the bark of a dog or the thump of a blow.
“It’s all right. Get up—” She hesitated and was frightened for a second. “Hansel,” she said, remembering. “We have to practice our names.”
“What’s our last name?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Her face twisted with worry. He was right. They’d need a last name.
He stood and brushed the leaves off. His face was very pale and he looked hopefully at her. “When will we find a farmer?”
“I’m not hungry now.” He smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back. There were no hunger pains in her own body, and she knew what it meant. Ransacking her pockets for a crumb, no matter how small or dirty, she felt the panic rising again. Just a tiny crumb swallowed could bring the hunger raging back. There was nothing in her pockets.
“Come on. We have to go fast now.” She knew they had to get food before night. “The dogs might come.”
He would go faster if he thought about the dogs, and they had to get out of the forest. Stealing food could take time, and stealing was safer than asking. They moved at a trot through the trees and she wondered how you stole food from farmers. She had seen pictures of farms in a book, but she couldn’t remember if farmers had refrigerators or kept the food outside in their barns.
They had a refrigerator once. When she was little and lived in a city somewhere else. Two men carried it up the back stairs into the kitchen. She remembered the maid shrieking when she opened it up and felt the cold air coming out.
The sun was only a glare through the clouds and the cold didn’t get any better. Gretel could tell it was midmorning by the silver disk of sun in the sky when she glimpsed it through tree limbs.
“Can we whisper, Gretel?”
She looked around. It was silent except for the sound of their feet and their breathing.
“Only whisper.” She leaned toward him so her voice didn’t have to rise.
“I’m thirsty.” His whisper was loud, but she was glad he had thirst.
They had come a long way. The forest was bigger than Bialy Park, maybe bigger than Bialystok itself. The forest might not ever end but just keep going east until they were in Byelorussia. She remembered the map on the wall of their room in the ghetto. She had watched her father tear it out of a book and hang it up. He had been able to save only three books.
“A mathematics book and an atlas. We will study logical thought and the world. Not everything is Poland and Germany. And one book of fairy tales, for you, daughter.”
Then he pointed. “This is Poland. This is Germany. But the rest of it, look now, the rest of it is the world.”
Her father taught them ever since she could remember. Math lessons and geography. And the third book that lay in the corner of the room where she slept on a mat with her brother.