Countless books have been written — and films made — about the Warsaw Ghetto. It saw more than 400,000 Jews packed into the largest urban ghetto created by the Nazis in Europe, leading to a Jewish uprising on April 1943 that was crushed four weeks later. It's a story that should be told over and over again.
Pockets of militant Jewish resistance surfaced in smaller ghettos across Nazi-occupied central-eastern Europe too. But those stories are not as widely known.
Into The Forest tells one of them. Author Rebecca Frankel based the book on a series of in-depth interviews with Tania and Rochel Rabinowitz. Along with their parents, Morris and Miriam, they miraculously escaped the second liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Zhetel in the summer of 1942. Today the small town is located in Dyatlovo, Belarus. But it was then part of Nazi-occupied Poland. Frankel, a D.C.-based journalist and editor, places that genocidal slaughter into a wider historical and geopolitical context.
The first known Jewish settlers arrived to Zhetel at the end of the 16th century. Yiddish was their primary language. But many spoke Polish, Belarusian, Hebrew, and German. Between 1914 and 1939 Zhetel's geographical and political status changed hands numerous times — as German, Belarusian, Polish, and Soviet leaders sought to incorporate the town into their respective regimes. Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked the beginning of the end for Jewish life in Zhetel. An urban ghetto was up and running the following February.
In Nazi-occupied central-eastern Europe, 1,150 of these Jewish ghettos were in operation as part of a broader plan to exterminate all of continent's Jewish population. In 1942, when the Final Solution became official Nazi policy, Jews were shot by Nazis inside the ghetto walls, and then buried in nearby mass graves. Others were transported to death camps, mostly located in occupied Poland.
Frankel notes how gruesome violence was used against certain Zhetel Jews believed to have knowledge about a military plan for Jewish resistance. Among that list was Tania and Rochel's grandfather, Berl Rabinowitz. As explained in the book, he was beheaded with an ax by an SS commander after refusing to exchange information about the whereabouts of Alter Dvoretsky. Rabinowitz and Dvoretsky were both members of Zhetel's Judenrat.
Across Nazi-occupied Europe during the Holocaust, these elite Jewish councils — Judenrat — were later accused by some of engaging in spineless collaboration to save themselves. Frankel claims Zhetel's Judenrat did not follow that same trajectory of treacherous disloyalty.
Dvoretsky died in the Bialowieza Forest during an attack from Christian partisans. But he was instrumental in planning the military alliance Jewish partisans formed with Russian partisans, Frankel writes. That relationship was based on wartime necessity, rather than mutual respect. But differences and prejudices were put aside as both factions worked together to contain their Nazi enemy.
Frankel's book devotes significant time and ink analyzing this two year forest-based conflict, where partisans used guerilla warfare tactics to buy time until more military assistance arrived from Moscow. It was fought in a 580-square-mile woodland stretching across the borders of Belarus and Poland — the same area where the Rabinowitz family also fled to escape Nazi persecution. They were joined in the woods by hundreds of other civilian Jewish refugees. Most came from Zhetel and the nearby towns of Novogrudek, Bilitza, Dvoretz, Deretchin, and Baranovichy. Avoiding military conflict, and finding food, shelter, and medical assistance was their main concern. In July 1944, the Red Army finally liberated the Bialowieza forest and its nearby towns and villages. After the war the Rabinowitz's briefly returned to Zhetel. But the town they knew had vanished. The borders of Zhetel gradually shifted back into Soviet territory. Life under a communist dictatorship wasn't very appealing to them, so the family sojourned westward. First to Italy, as stateless Jewish refugees. And then to Connecticut in the United States, where they eventually settled and prospered socially and economically.
Frankel's research is first rate. Along with her primary interviews she cites a wide range of Holocaust survivors testimonies, including Allan Levine's Fugitives of the Forest and Philip Lazowski's Faith and Destiny. The latter author is a crucial figure in Frankel's story. In 1955 he married Rochel (who later changed her name to Ruth) Rabinowitz. The genesis of their romance goes back to the Zhetel ghetto during a crucial moment when Nazis were separating Jews for deportation leading to extermination. Those with work permits were briefly able to buy themselves time to look for an escape route. A stroke of luck saw Miriam Rabinowitz (Ruth's mother) get Lazowski onto a list that ultimately saved his life. In a remarkable coincidence, Ruth and Philip would cross paths in the United States after the war.
Frankel skillfully retells this complex story in a gripping narrative that reads like a page turning thriller novel. But Into The Forest possesses some minor flaws. On occasion Frankel's prose is awkward, clumsy, and verbose. The high-brow literary style she is clearly aiming for doesn't quite work. A more ruthless editor would have removed some of the egregious literary cliches that surface now and again. But these are minor technical pitfalls in what is otherwise a fascinating and emotionally gripping historical memoir.
J.P. O'Malley is a freelance cultural critic and journalist. His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Observer, The Irish Independent, and many other publications.
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