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A poignant and suspenseful retelling of a classic fairy tale set in a war-torn world
In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed "Hansel" and "Gretel." They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called "witch" by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Louise Murphy’s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children.
"Lyrical, haunting, unforgettable." —Kirkus Reviews
"No reader who picks up this inspiring novel will put it down until the final pages, in which redemption is not a fairy tale ending but a heartening message of hope." —Publishers Weekly
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Louise Murphy, winner of a Writers Digest Award for formal poetry, is the author of the novel The Sea Within and a book for children, My Garden. She is a regular contributor to numerous literary and poetry journals.
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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
Published by the Penguin Group
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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.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
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.
What People are Saying About This
"This harrowing portrayal of the daily ordeal of Poles caught up in the German occupation-Gentiles as well as Jews-makes this 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
"[S]earing narrative transforms the old archetypes.... [A] gripping narrative" —Booklist
"A provocative transformation of the classic fairy tale into a haunting survival story set in Poland during WWII, Murphy's second novel (after The Sea Within) is darkly enchanting. No reader who picks up this inspiring novel will put it down until the final pages, in which redemption is not a fairy tale ending but a heartening message of hope." —Publishers Weekly
Reading Group Guide
"The story has been told over and over by liars and it must be retold."
In the winter of 1943, on the outskirts of a dark forest, two Jewish children flee the Nazis with their father and stepmother. In a moment of desperation, the children are given the aliases Hansel and Gretel and sent alone into the woods to hide. Gretel leads her younger brother in search of food and protection, while Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs behind so that their father might find them again. So begins The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, which takes us along on their journey into a forest more ancient than man. In a landscape populated by exotic beasts, refugees, and revolutionaries, the two children embark upon a new life as Christian orphans, protected by a woman who is called Magda the witch and whose tiny hut is heated by an enormous baker's oven.
In this extraordinary novel by Louise Murphy, a fairy tale is reimagined and a war story retold. It is the story of individuals striving to survive and a village trying to outlast a war. Magda the witch lives on the edge of Piaski, in a region of Eastern Poland that has been overrun first by Russians and now by Germans. Her family is an assortment of outsiders: her brother Piotr, a fallen priest, her great-niece Nelka, a beauty in love with an enigmatic woodsman, her dead grandmother, a Gypsy and an abortionist. The villagers are terrorized by a small but vicious Nazi presence and weary at the end of a war that has brought them many conquerors and few saviors. Murphy unflinchingly presents the war as a landscape of horrors, the village humiliated under the yoke of ruthless SS officers and by the necessities of survival under unbearable circumstances.
We also follow the trials of Hansel and Gretel's father, who endures a brutal winter of revolutionary action and personal transformation, all the while preoccupied with the fear that his children may not survive and the hope that he will find them again. This unique novel gives voice to figures that have before now been underrepresented in the writing of World War II: the voices of Jews who hid in the forests, of men and women who participated in resistance movements, and of Polish civilians. These characters struggle with their relationship with God, with their disgust for a humanity in crisis, and with the desire to define a new and more just world.
Yet Murphy manages to maintain the fairy-tale foundation of her story, returning again and again to the elements of an old story to infuse meaning into a newer one. The Bialowieza Forest, the oldest in Europe, is a place of mysterious and untouched beauty, and its lessons for the children and for humanity permeate the book. Murphy juxtaposes horror with lyricism, reality with magic. The primal nature of war is met by the primal power of story—and the belief that love can rescue humans from their worst capabilities. Hansel and Gretel are on a quest to reclaim their identities, and the witch and the forest—the world of the fairy tale—show them the way.
In prose both luminous and enlightening, Murphy explores the power of memory, the necessity of love in times of great trauma, and the redemption that can come about through the refusal to erase one's own past. This is the tale of two brave children who never give up, of women who refuse to be defined by convention, and of the bitter cost of survival. Over the course of the winter, Hansel and Gretel will come of age. Their mother dead, their father and stepmother in hiding, by necessity forced to alter their own identities, they become survivors.
ABOUT LOUISE MURPHY
Louise Murphy, winner of a Writers Digest Award for formal poetry, is the author of the novel The Sea Within and a book for children, My Garden. She is a regular contributor to numerous literary and poetry journals.
A CONVERSATION WITH LOUISE MURPHY
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is in part the retelling of a classic fairy tale. How long have you had an interest in fairy tales and in the story of Hansel and Gretel in particular?
As a child, I did not like most fairy tales, particularly this one. The deep unconscious meanings in those stories triggered my nightmares. In college I took a folklore course that fascinated me as we traced and studied the folk motifs that are found in every culture.
The original fairy tale is actually quite frightening; is that one reason why you chose it as a frame for this harrowing tale?
This is the fairy tale that scared me the most when I was a child. It mirrors my worst adult fears about what the abandon-ment and blind violence of war does to children all over the world.
You seem to try to redeem certain characters, particularly women, from the traditional stereotyping they receive in fairy tales and elsewhere. The stepmother and the witch, two types often vilified, are portrayed very positively. Were you conscious of this as a feminist project? And are these stereotypes the kinds of lies that you have Magda refer to at the start?
Stereotypes are always lies. It was the idea of "the witch" that began my struggle to understand Magda and then all the other characters. Our culture denigrates older women, yet they are often the ones who protect and nurture everyone in the family. As many "blended" families demonstrate, there are loving stepparents in every culture. I don't like stereotypes of any group of people.
This story takes place in a particular region of Eastern Poland. How did you learn about the history of the area, and what kind of research did you do for the book? How did you balance research and storytelling?
I have no personal memories of World War II. It is all history for me, so I was lucky to have the Holocaust Library in San Francisco and the University of California library nearby with its huge collection of books. I read for three years and took hundreds of pages of notes to understand the area and the people, the timetable of the war and the daily details of life in a Polish village during World War II. Ultimately, it is the characters that matter to me. They take over the novel and drive the plot, but research gives the novelist ideas, and the setting of any story becomes part of its power.
The Bialowieza Forest is one of the last patches of primeval growth in Europe. It seems like the perfect setting for a fairy tale, a place where stories might both emerge and endure, almost outside of time. How did you find out about this forest, and have you ever actually been there?
I have never visited the forest. I learned of it while watching television! It was a program on the Bialowieza Forest, and it was like watching a film about a country in your dreams. I saw the program several years before I began the book, and vaguely thought it would be a wonderful place to set the Magda story, if I ever wrote it.
This region was also home to many of Hitler's concentration camps. Many people identify the Holocaust with Germany and have less information about the events that took place in Poland. Is this a reason why you chose to set the story in Poland rather than in Germany?
Poland was called "the anvil of the devil" during the war. The German master plan was to kill all the Jews, Gypsies, dissidents and leaders in Poland, then starve off the old and the very young, leaving a work force to build cities for the new German world order. Children who looked Aryan must be kidnapped and "saved," because the Germans did not have enough population for their grandiose scheme. At the end of the building, all the remaining Polish workers would be killed in the camps. Setting a novel in this place allowed me to show the horrors of war against children and civilians and put my characters in situations where they had to make hard decisions daily.
You certainly do not flinch from depicting acts of true horror, and characters like the Oberführer seem to typify the Nazi as an incarnation of evil. With other characters, including some of the Polish citizens and Major Frankel in particular, you step away from such absolute characteristics and tread more in the realm of psychological ambiguity. Guilty though these characters are, you make them human beings. Was this difficult, especially when writing about such an iconic and horrific event?
I honestly do not understand the psychotic desire to control, torture, and kill that the Oberführer represents, and he was the most difficult character to portray. I experimented with humanizing him, but it was like saying that "after all, Hitler loved his dogs." No humanizing can explain and forgive such evil. Men like the Oberführer appear when historical events give them permission to use this dark side of the human imagination. Major Frankel is a very different type. He is a man in a dirty war who began as a patriot. He is every soldier, a normal man caught up in the dehumanizing actions that war demands.
Did you ever get just plain depressed by the actions some of the characters take (or are forced to take), and did you ever feel the urge to make parts of the book less graphic and therefore less painful? How difficult was it to envision a happy ending?
The research was so chilling that sometimes I would leave the library and take a walk in the sun, but writing the story, I could create a rescuer like Magda. I could save the children from death, which made a happy ending tempered by tragedy. When I finished the writing, I realized that I had not killed a single child in the novel. You hear of children dying, but do not see it. This was unconscious on my part and quite unrealistic since Poland lost over twenty percent of her children. I procrastinated writing Magda's death scene for weeks. As soon as I accepted that I couldn't bear to kill Magda, I sat down and wrote the chapter. It was terrible to kill a character I loved so much even though she is only a part of my imagination.
Though the novel is called The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, it is also the story of the father and stepmother, of Magda and her brother, and of the entire village of Piaski. How did you incorporate so many different voices into one narrative? Were any of these characters based on real people?
None of the characters were based on people I know. When I write a novel, I seem to create characters who are people I would like to meet, people I hope exist, people I hope to become myself someday, or people that frighten me. If my life requires it, I want Magda's courage, Father Piotr's self-knowledge, the Major's strength, Nelka and Telek's passion, and Hansel's capacity for survival.
How important was it to you, as the author, to let there be satisfaction for certain characters, and justice for others? Did you feel a responsibility to lend a kind of moral balance to a situation that was distinctly unjust?
Like most people who read about the Holocaust and the circumstances of any people occupied and at war, I long for justice. The story of Father Piotr and his final actions is a very complicated effort to show a man yearning for justice for himself and his family. I punish the Oberführer at the end, but I hope the lingering fear is present in the reader that this man will return, as evil always returns to haunt us. The responsibility of the artist is to try and find the truth, regardless of whether it is comfortable or not, but the moral balance is ultimately on the side of good people who manage to save children by courageous action.
The ultimate goal of the story seems to be to pass on hope, and to praise the value of love; this is certainly how Magda, as the narrator, frames the tale. How difficult was it to keep the idea of love meaningful while also writing so unflinchingly about evil?
I never really thought in terms of what abstract ideas I was presenting or not presenting while writing. Most novel writers become so involved in creating the characters and the plot, we leave the analysis to others. After the novel is done, we see things we did that weren't consciously conceived, and good readers tell us things we didn't see while we wrote. It is after the novel is completed that we find out what we, in our deepest heart, believe about life, and that is our own truth we give the world in our art. I believe there are as many truths about life as there are artists.
You dedicate this novel to your son. What are your thoughts about passing on memories and knowledge about the Holocaust to younger generations? Is this topic one that you plan to keep to in future writing, or do you feel that now you will move on?
Watching my son and a daughter become adults, I have been impressed with how much harder their decisions are than when I was growing up. The fluidity of values, the availability of drugs, the commonplace of divorce and the movement of people every few years to find work has changed our world. I hope, perhaps too optimistically, that by showing the darkness of the Holocaust to our young adults, we will teach them to reject racism and war.
I was born in 1943, perhaps the darkest year the world has ever seen. Because I was born in the United States, I survived, but felt compelled to understand the time of my own birth. For all of my reading and work, I will never "understand" the Holocaust. It is too huge, too terrible to categorize or comprehend, but this novel is the best I can do to present the period that so deeply disturbs me. I doubt that I will write about this again.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I've read a lot of World War 2 novels, and this was one of the best. It was realistic, but at the same time it was borderline mystical. The writing was engrossing and lyrical, and the characters were spectacularly well-written. Despite the many heart-wrenching moments, the story was ultimately uplifting and moving.
The theme of this story is a mixture of good vs. evil, survival and many more. From the beginning the book has situations that nobody would want to be in. During the holocaust, a familie of Jews are being chased by Nazis, for the fear of watching his kids die the parents let the kids off into the woods to fend for themselves. As you read this book you the plot thickens as these two kids, Hansel and Gretel meet strangers who hide and protect them as if they were their own. This story makes you feel, in great detail what was happening at this. You learn to care for these to kids as if you knew them personally. The story takes place in Poland and are taken care of by an old lady, Magda, in the forest. The children want to find their father and step mother who abandoned them into the forest. Throughout the story you hear what happens to the kids and to the parents. One thing you will not find in this book is one hero, but at least five. The thing I liked about the book is it kept making me think that the children were going to get caught by the Nazis or die because of the conditions they were under. This is a book that makes you feel angry, happy, and suspicious on who is trustworthy and great sadness. Believe me, your heart pumps all the way to they end
This book is an amazing WWII novel! It's definitely not very cheerful but the book's intensity is part of what kept me so intrigued. Murphy's style of writing is very descriptive yet easy to read. The characters are so developed and I felt really connected to each of them and their subplots. I would definitely recommend this novel!
I could not put this down and i read it in 2 days. It reminded me why i love books and with the totally relevant topics (the holocaust AND fairy tales) this book is destined to be a new classic!
This book defintely isn't what I expected by the title, I am so glad I took a leap of faith based on the reviews!
I started reading this book for book club and was a little worried I might not like it due to the expected WWII content, but I loved it! What a well written book! I loved how the author brought in Hansel and Gretel and the Witch and the whole story ultimately yet meshed it with the ongoing WWII drama that enfolded it. Highly recommend!
2 young Jewish children are left in the woods to care for themselves during WWll. They find a home with an old woman who they don't much care for in the beginning, but in the end she saves their lives. This story shows just one way children may have had to act in order to survive.
One of the best books I have ever read and I have read a lot in my 80 years of life
What a great story with references to the fairy tale woven in. Pretty dark in some spots but the author made me feel what the characters were feeling. Excellently written .
I had high hopes for this book, however, I'm unable to finish it (the only reason I'm giving it a two and not a one is because I realize there may be potential. I'm just not willing to sift through the boredom in order to find it). The characters are dry, and the story is too simple for me.
Louise Murphy has taken a classic fairy tale and expounded on the characters. I found myself sympathizing with the villains of my youth. Ms. Murphy’s graphic and poignant story telling paralleled the children’s book in a manner that is believable yet dark and haunting. “The True Story of Hansel and Gretel” epics the Holocaust just as it was – horrific with glimmers of kindness and hope.
The author has done an amazing job with this book. I believe that even though it is a fiction novel, it should be required reading in high school, either for a world history class, or literature, to teach the awful nature of man’s inhumanity to man. Ms. Murphy researched for 3 years prior to writing the novel. She uses the old fairy-tale of Hansel and Gretel set in the woods of Poland during the time of the Holocaust. Ms. Murphy manages to tell both the actual physical struggle of the children and adults during this time, as well as show the evilness of the nature of those who were dedicated to the Nazi regime. Of course, it could be any other regime, and these things could happen today as well. Ms. Murphy’s writing flows so well from one paragraph to the next and one chapter to the next. Her characters are rich and full and the reader is able to connect with them very easily as real people. The relationship between Hansel and Gretel is so sweet. It is shown as, I believe, relationships can only be built during times of extreme distress. This book is very difficult reading, due to the graphic nature of the events. However, I believe that everyone 16 and over should read it. There is a saying that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. I think that is true and reading this book will help prevent repeating this horror.
If you’re looking for a light read, then this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re looking for a well-written story, with intriguing characters, which leaves you questioning man’s inhumanity to man, then you’ll want to pick up this book. It’s a story about doing what it takes to survive, about the love between siblings, and it’s a story about finding hope amidst despair. It’s an interesting reimagining of the classic fairy tale, and it spares no punches with your emotions. If you want to face the realities of a harsh world, then you should pick up this book. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator
Read this book and loved it. Then I traveled to Poland and thought about the book while in the forests there. Came home and read the book again. If you love WWll history, you will be captivated by this book. It is wonderful.