In some ways, every Holocaust story is like every other: the horrors endured, the unbelievable cruelty, watching family members die, and having to make unimaginable decisions to survive. But in other ways, every Holocaust story is unique, as is this one.
Born in 1927 in Tarnograd, Poland, Mala had a happy childhood until 1939, when the Nazis take over Poland. She survives to write this memoir, one of the very few from her town.
The book is written in direct, straightforward language, which is an odd contrast to the horrors Mala experiences. Mala’s story is unusual in several regards. The title refers to her cat, Malach, which means “angel”. Malach watches over her in a way that seems unbelievable, popping up even after she’s had to travel long distances and occasionally signaling to Mala that she’s in danger (for example, at one point she finds Malach hiding in a ditch and then realizes soldiers are approaching and she needs to hide too). Mala later said she always believed Malach was her guardian angel, and I’m not going to say she’s wrong.
Aside from Malach, the main reason Mala survives is that she doesn’t look Jewish. She quickly learns to hide in plain sight, escaping her town, removing her Jewish star and becoming as “invisible” as possible. But it isn’t enough to look Jewish. She has to learn to speak Polish and German rather than Yiddish, to worship as a Christian, and to eat non-kosher foods. I was struck by one strategy she frequently employs. She realizes that if she cowers and acts afraid, she’ll be recognized as a Jew, but if she acts offended, even rude, with the authorities, no one will think she’s a Jew. That gets her out of a number of close calls. There’s something about that that made me very sad, just thinking of the way Jews were perceived, as a people seen as beaten down.
Mala also survives because she trusts almost no one. A very sad thing about her story (among many sad things) is the state of constant distrust, almost paranoia, that she has to live with for six years. Her “friends” could turn on her at any moment, and often she grows close to someone only to see them betray her. Even worse, those that don’t betray her may be (and sometimes are) killed for helping her. So during her very vulnerable teenage years she is shaped by constant suspicion and fear of getting close to anyone. I can’t imagine what that does to someone’s psyche. And maybe it’s only Malach (whether real or imaginary) that keeps her sane all this time.
If the writing is a little rough at times, it’s an amazing story. Not just as a memoir of one person’s survival, but as a unique view of what happened in small towns across Poland during the Holocaust, where the Nazis systematically traveled from town to town conducting mass executions, often forcing Jews themselves to dig mass graves.
My husband and I saw a photo exhibit when we traveled to Krakow a few years ago, of the memorials that have been erected across Poland to mark these mass gravesites. This touches me personally, as my own grandfather came from Dukla, a small town in Southeastern Poland not far from Mala’s Tarnograd. Fortunately, my grandfather traveled with his mother and siblings to the United States before the Holocaust, so they were saved from what the town endured. Certainly, my grandfather had family members who remained and perished.
So Mala’s story felt very personal to me, and I admired her strength and ingenuity, even while I was occasionally horrified at some of the things she had to do. I also appreciated her insights as an observant Jew. She relies heavily on her faith, which makes it hard for her to pose as a non-Jew, but also provides inspiration when she needs it most.
If you’re looking for an interesting book pairing, I recently read Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, a memoir about a woman (also an observant Jew) who is told from her childhood that she doesn’t look Jewish, and as an adult a DNA test reveals her father is not who she thought he was. She vividly remembers a relative who tells her as a child that she could have saved people in the Holocaust because she’s doesn’t look Jewish. Which sounds like a messed-up thing to say to a child unless it’s coming from a survivor, and then it’s more understandable – as this book reminds us, we are only a generation away from these horrible events.
It sometimes feels like there are too many Holocaust stories – but the truth is, there are way too few of them. You won’t forget Mala and her cat. And that’s the important thing.
Note: I received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from publisher Pegasus Books as part of a Holocaust Remembrance Day promotion on January 27. The book published January 4, 2022.