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
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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
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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 cr...
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Descripción Penguin Books, United States, 2003. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. New.. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780142003077