The New York Times bestselling author of the “heart-stopping tale of survival and heroism” (People) The Book of Lost Names returns with an evocative coming-of-age World War II story about a young woman who uses her knowledge of the wilderness to help Jewish refugees escape the Nazis—until a secret from her past threatens everything.
After being stolen from her wealthy German parents and raised in the unforgiving wilderness of eastern Europe, a young woman finds herself alone in 1941 after her kidnapper dies. Her solitary existence is interrupted, however, when she happens upon a group of Jews fleeing the Nazi terror. Stunned to learn what’s happening in the outside world, she vows to teach the group all she can about surviving in the forest—and in turn, they teach her some surprising lessons about opening her heart after years of isolation. But when she is betrayed and escapes into a German-occupied village, her past and present come together in a shocking collision that could change everything.
Inspired by incredible true stories of survival against staggering odds, and suffused with the journey-from-the-wilderness elements that made Where the Crawdads Sing a worldwide phenomenon, The Forest of Vanishing Stars is a heart-wrenching and suspenseful novel from the #1 internationally bestselling author whose writing has been hailed as “sweeping and magnificent” (Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author), “immersive and evocative” (Publishers Weekly), and “gripping” (Tampa Bay Times).
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Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
The old woman watched from the shadows outside Behaimstrasse 72, waiting for the lights inside to blink out. The apartment’s balcony dripped with crimson roses, and ivy climbed the iron rails, but the young couple who lived there—the power-hungry Siegfried Jüttner and his aloof wife, Alwine—weren’t the ones who tended the plants. That was left to their maid, for the nurturing of life was something only those with some goodness could do.
The old woman had been watching the Jüttners for nearly two years now, and she knew things about them, things that were important to the task she was about to undertake.
She knew, for example, that Herr Jüttner had been one of the first men in Berlin to join the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, a new political movement that was slowly gaining a foothold in the war-shattered country. She knew he’d been inspired to do so while on holiday in Munich nearly three years earlier, after seeing an angry young man named Adolf Hitler give a rousing speech in the Hofbräukeller. She knew that after hearing that speech, Herr Jüttner had walked twenty minutes back to the elegant Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, had awoken his sleeping young wife, and had lain with her, though at first she had objected, for she had been dreaming of a young man she had once loved, a man who had died in the Great War.
The old woman knew, too, that the baby conceived on that autumn-scented Bavarian night, a girl the Jüttners had named Inge, had a birthmark in the shape of a dove on the inside of her left wrist.
She also knew that the girl’s second birthday was the following day, the sixth of July, 1922. And she knew, as surely as she knew that the bell-shaped buds of lily of the valley and the twilight petals of aconite could kill a man, that the girl must not be allowed to remain with the Jüttners.
That was why she had come.
The old woman, who was called Jerusza, had always known things other people didn’t. For example, she had known it the moment Frédéric Chopin had died in 1849, for she had awoken from a deep slumber, the notes of his “Revolutionary Étude” marching through her head in an aggrieved parade. She had felt the earth tremble upon the births of Marie Curie in 1867 and Albert Einstein in 1879. And on a sweltering late June day in 1914, two months after she had turned seventy-four, she had felt it deep in her jugular vein, weeks before the news reached her, that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne had been felled by an assassin’s bullet, cracking the fragile balance of the world. She had known then that war was brewing, just as she knew it now. She could see it in the dark clouds that hulked on the horizon.
Jerusza’s mother, who had killed herself with a brew of poisons in 1860, used to tell her that the knowing of impossible things was a gift from God, passed down through maternal blood of only the most fortunate Jewish women. Jerusza, the last of a bloodline that had stretched for centuries, was certain at times that it was a curse instead, but whatever it was, it had been her burden all her life to follow the voices that echoed through the forests. The leaves whispered in the trees; the flowers told tales as old as time; the rivers rushed with news of places far away. If one listened closely enough, nature always spilled her secrets, which were, of course, the secrets of God. And now, it was God who had brought Jerusza here, to a fog-cloaked Berlin street corner, where she would be responsible for changing the fate of a child, and perhaps a piece of the world, too.
Jerusza had been alive for eighty-two years, nearly twice as long as the typical German lived. When people looked at her—if they bothered to look at all—they were visibly startled by her wizened features, her hands gnarled by decades of hard living. Most of the time, though, strangers simply ignored her, just as Siegfried and Alwine Jüttner had done each of the hundreds of times they had passed her on the street. Her age made her particularly invisible to those who cared most about appearance and power; they assumed she was useless to them, a waste of time, a waste of space. After all, surely a woman as old as she would be dead soon. But Jerusza, who had spent her whole life sustained by the plants and herbs in the darkest spots of the deepest forests, knew that she would live nearly twenty years more, to the age of 102, and that she would die on a spring Tuesday just after the last thaw of 1942.
The Jüttners’ maid, the timid daughter of a dead sailor, had gone home two hours before, and it was a few minutes past ten o’clock when the Jüttners finally turned off their lights. Jerusza exhaled. Darkness was her shield; it always had been. She squinted at the closed windows and could just make out the shape of the little girl’s infant bed in the room to the right, beyond pale custard curtains. She knew exactly where it was, had been into the room many times when the family wasn’t there. She had run her fingers along the pine rails, had felt the power splintering from the curves. Wood had memory, of course, and the first time Jerusza had touched the bed where the baby slept, she had been nearly overcome by a warm, white wash of light.
It was the same light that had brought her here from the forest two years earlier. She had first seen it in June 1920, shining above the treetops like a personal aurora borealis, beckoning her north. She hated the city, abhorred being in a place built by man rather than God, but she knew she had no choice. Her feet had carried her straight to Behaimstrasse 72, to bear witness as the raven-haired Frau Jüttner nursed the baby for the first time. Jerusza had seen the baby glowing, even then, a light in the darkness no one knew was coming.
She didn’t want a child; she never had. Perhaps that was why it had taken her so long to act. But nature makes no mistakes, and now, as the sky filled with a cloud of silent blackbirds over the twinkling city, she knew the time had come.
It was easy to climb up the ladder of the modern building’s fire escape, easier still to push open the Jüttners’ unlatched window and slip quietly inside. The child was awake, silently watching, her extraordinary eyes—one twilight blue and one forest green—glimmering in the darkness. Her hair was black as night, her lips the startling red of corn poppies.
“Ikh bin gekimen dir tzu nemen,” Jerusza whispered in Yiddish, a language the girl would not yet know. I have come for you. She was startled to realize that her heart was racing.
She didn’t expect a reply, but the child’s lips parted, and she reached out her left hand, palm upturned, the dove-shaped birthmark shimmering in the darkness. She said something soft, something that a lesser person would have dismissed as the meaningless babble of a little girl, but to Jerusza, it was unmistakable. “Dus zent ir,” said the girl in Yiddish. It is you.
“Yo, dus bin ikh,” Jerusza agreed. And with that, she picked up the baby, who didn’t cry out, and, tucking her close against the brittle curves of her body, climbed out the window and shimmied down the iron rail, her feet hitting the sidewalk without a sound.
From the folds of Jerusza’s cloak, the baby watched soundlessly, her mismatched ocean eyes round, as Berlin vanished behind them and the forest to the north swallowed them whole.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Forest of Vanishing Stars includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book
After being stolen from her wealthy German parents and raised in the unforgiving wilderness of eastern Europe, a young woman finds herself alone in 1941 after her kidnapper dies. Her solitary existence is interrupted, however, when she happens upon a group of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Stunned to learn what’s happening in the outside world, she vows to teach the group all she can about surviving in the forest—and in turn, they teach her some surprising lessons about opening her heart after years of isolation. But when she is betrayed and escapes into a German-occupied village, her past and present come together in a shocking collision that could change everything.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Chapter 1 introduces readers to Jerusza and reveals her eccentric backstory. Why do you think the author opens the novel in this way? How does it frame your understanding of the narrative and of Yona and Jerusza as characters?
2. Discuss Jerusza’s decision to steal Yona, a well-cared-for little girl, from her comfortable home and normal childhood and turn her into a “desperate, hungry warrior” (page 234) who didn’t know what it was like to connect with another human being until she reached adulthood. Was this fair to Yona, who was never given the chance to choose between Jerusza and a life with her parents, who despite their major flaws, may have loved her? Do you believe, as Jerusza does, that Yona is better off with her in the wild than in the home of Nazis? Did you ultimately find Jerusza to be a good or evil character?
3. Early on in the novel we learn that Yona feels torn between her loyalty to Jerusza and her longing for the parents she never knew. How does this inform the decisions she makes after Jerusza passes? Do you think she would have made these choices had she not yearned for her parents or been told their names by Jerusza? Why do you think Jerusza tells her about her family and her home?
4. Throughout the novel Yona struggles with her identity. Being raised by Jerusza in the forest, she is unsure of her family’s heritage and religious beliefs. She identifies with the Jewish faith, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that she learns of her Jewish heritage. She also has German blood flowing through her veins and at one point even wonders if she has inherited her father’s evil side. How does this confusion both help and hurt Yona? Do you think the choices she makes ever stem from a need to pay for the sins of her fellow Germans? Are our identities determined by birth, or is it possible to escape our pasts and create identities based on how we choose to live our lives?
5. Jerusza says, “Once fates intertwine, they are forever linked. Lives are circles spinning across the world, and when they’re meant to intersect again, they do. There’s nothing we can do to stop it” (page 34). Do you believe this sentiment? Do you believe in fate?
6. Why do you think Zus’s and Aleksander’s groups adjust to life in the forest with relative ease, as compared with Chana’s family? Why do you think they trust Yona, while Chana’s family does not? Would you trust Yona? Which of the qualities they possess do you think are most necessary for surviving in nature, outside of society?
7. Discuss how the forest acts as a character in the novel. Then discuss Yona’s relationship with the forest and with nature. Does that relationship change in the course of the novel? If so, in what ways?
8. The characters in the book all experience their own heartaches—the death of loved ones, broken hearts, the kidnapping of a child. Discuss the role of grief and sadness in the novel and how that pain both brings the characters together and pushes them apart. Do you believe that pain helps us to better understand one another? If so, how?
9. Meeting her father is a defining point in the novel for Yona. Why is this meeting difficult for her? Does it change anything for her? How might she have gone on with her life had she not met him?
10. Jüttner personifies the Nazi regime in this story and is easily the most hateful character in the novel. It could be argued, though, that he, too, is a victim of deep sorrow and incredible suffering. Do you think the author ever shows him in a kinder light or depicts him as more than just a villain? Do you think he comes to a fair end?
11. At the end of the novel, almost all of those Yona helps hide in the forest move back into society and attempt to regain a sense of normalcy. Why do you think Yona stays in the forest? Did this decision surprise you? What do you think Yona does for the rest of her life in the forest?
12. The book touches on loneliness in several forms—the solitude of living alone, losing family and friends, surviving in the face of death and persecution, finding company only to feel like an outsider. Loneliness is a powerful emotion that can both spur one into action and render one hopeless. Why do you think these different variations of loneliness cause the characters to make the decisions they do? How does their loneliness change them for the better or worse?
13. The Forest of Vanishing Stars portrays two major types of conflict: man versus man and man versus nature. Which conflict do you think is the larger issue for the characters in the novel—the Nazis hunting them, or the unforgiving forest? If the characters hadn’t encountered Yona, would your answer change? How does the presence of two main conflicts increase the tension and urgency of the novel? Do you think this story of survival would be as powerful with only one major conflict?
14. Faith and the unity in belief is a strong theme throughout the book. Jerusza tells Yona that she believes in “everything and nothing. I am a seeker of truth, a seeker of God” (page 28). Meanwhile, Sister Maria Andrzeja tells Yona, “We all come to God in different ways” (page 196). The nun seems to believe everyone is on the same journey to understand God. Do you think that is true of the characters in the book? Do you think that is true of religions today?
15. While watching Aleksander, “Yona wanted nothing more in that moment than to step from the trees and be the answer to his prayer, the proof that after whatever terrible things he had endured to bring him here, there was a God after all. But who was she to think she could save anyone from the darkness?” (page 61). Yona feels compelled to help the refugees she meets, and those she helps survive in the forest often see her as a savior; it seems as if Jerusza also believes that kidnapping Yona was in service to a higher calling. Do you think Yona was in some ways a gift from a higher power?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. One of the groups the author researched for The Forest of Vanishing Stars was the society led by the Bielski brothers, and which is depicted in the film Defiance. Watch this movie with your book club and compare it with the novel. Which medium do you think is more powerful in conveying this story of persistence and resistance?
2. Yona teaches her new friends how to stay alive in the wild by weaving baskets, foraging for food, and building shelters. Ask everyone in your book club to learn a survival skill and to teach it to the group, whether it’s how to make your own fishnet or how to tell an edible mushroom from a poisonous one.
3. The author was able to sit down with Aron Bielski and hear his story of survival against incredible odds. He told her that “sorrow teaches a person how to live” and “hardship teaches a person life.” If you feel comfortable, share with your book club how your own sorrows or hardships have taught you how to survive, to triumph over darkness, or to embrace life.
4. Aron and his wife share with the author that they are afraid of the divisions currently tearing nations apart. How do today’s current events involving race, religion, and hate compare with the events leading up to World War II? Do you think we, the human race, have learned from the past, or do you, like Aron and Henryka, fear that history may repeat itself? What might we all be able to learn from stories like Aron’s and Yona’s?