We’re all familiar with the fairytale- the farmer’s new wife doesn’t like his children, so she sends them off into the forest with a loaf of bread until they come across a house of candy wherein resides a witch who resolves to put them in her oven and cook them for dinner. This novel, set in Poland 1941-1944, takes this skeleton of a tale and fleshes it out with starvation, war, hunger, and pain.
In the book, Hansel and Gretel are the fake German names of the two Jewish children who, with their father and stepmother (the Mechanik and the Stepmother), have just fled their ghetto in Bialystok and need to find a new place to go. Knowing the dangers of traveling with children, the adults send Hansel and Gretel into the woods with no food except for Hansel’s last slice of bread, which he breaks into crumbs to leave a trail behind them. The children wander in the woods for days before coming upon a little hut (built entirely of wood, not candy) owned by and old woman named Magda- the village witch. Somehow, the children charm Magda into feeding and housing them, and the witch invents and elaborate tale about being their great-aunt to get them ration cards.
Meanwhile, the Mechanik and the Stepmother happen across a group of partisans led by a mysterious fighter known as the Russian. The two prove themselves worthy, and are welcomed into the gang, where they sneak through the woods for months, fighting the Nazis as covertly as possible.
This novel, similar to The Book Thief, takes a very human look at WWII-era Poland, featuring as it’s main cast two hiding Jewish children, an old Gypsy and all her Gypsy family, and a Nazi who’s basically fed up with the war. Realistically, Major Frankel knows that Russia is moving strongly against them and that, rather than take residence in tiny little nothing villages in Poland, the German force should be drawing a line and securing it against the invasion. Despite being a Nazi, the Major is an endlessly sympathetic character- he sort of draws the line between killing people because they’re Jews, or Poles, and killing children who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s very interesting to read his chapters, and then return to Magda who has no nice words to say about the Germans- they are sharks and they will rip you to shreds. Of course, that’s understandable.
At 300 pages, with abnormally tiny text, the book isn’t a quick read, but it is worth the time. I was happy to pick it up in my spare five minutes, and never found it uninteresting. It’s a heavy novel, and for people who are sensitive to Holocaust-related media, this is definitely not for you. But if you can stomach a little human evil enough to see all the human good sprouting around it, this was a fantastic read.