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Amidst the Shadows of Trees
Amidst the Shadows of Trees
A Holocaust Child's Survival in the Partisans
By Miriam M. Brysk
Gihon River Press, 2013
Reviewed by Simone Bonim - July 29, 2013
Amidst the Shadows of Trees is a memoir that is both moving, and at times, difficult to read. It was written by Miriam M. Brysk, and it recounts her Holocaust experiences, and what happened to her family after the war. Miriam was only four years old when the Nazi bombardment of Warsaw began on September 1, 1939. This memoir follows Miriam and her family as they are forced into the Lida Ghetto and their escape from the Ghetto. Fleeing the Ghetto, the family found refuge with Russian Partisans. Her father, being a doctor, was assigned to work in a Partisan hospital. This memoir chronicles not only Miriam and her family's experiences during the war, but also what happened after liberation. She details how and why her family found it necessary to escape from the communist regime in Belorussia, and the long and difficult journey they endured before finding refuge in Italy, and eventually immigrating to America.
The events described in this memoir where experienced by a young child. In writing her memoir, Miriam has tried to stay true to the memories and feelings of that young child, and has tried whenever possible not to allow hindsight to creep into the narrative. This technique makes this memoir all the more memorable and emotionally charged. Many of the events described in this memoir are harsh and uncomfortable. For example, although working and living with the Partisans in Lipiczany Forest, the women in the group, including the very young Miriam, lived in fear of being raped by the Russian partisans. As a result, Miriam was forced to shave her hair and dress and act like a boy in order to protect herself.
Living in the forest with the Partisans, Miriam and her family faced many dangers and deprivations, but it offered them a chance of survival that they would not have had if they had fallen back into the hands of the Nazis. Miriam's father, as a doctor, was a needed commodity by the partisans, but Miriam and her mother were just more mouths to feed. As such, they had to work especially hard not to fall into disfavor or to fall behind on a march, or in any other way give the partisans an opportunity to safely dispose of them or to leave them behind.
Many of Miriam's remembrances are disturbing, for example, she recounts of hearing about a German officer who had been captured by
"...a Jewish partisan who had lost his entire family in Nazi ghetto massacres. Bitter with rage, he tied the German to a tree, gagged him, and cut off large pieces of his flesh with a sharp knife. As he did so, he declared in Yiddish, "This slice is for my mother, this one for my father, this one for my wife, these two for my children," ..." (Pg 55-56) She also explain how the only real safety that a woman in their group had was by pairing up 'permanently' with a man. Often these pairing where for the sake of safely only, but still resulted in unwanted sexual encounters, necessitating repeated abortions for the women to remain active members of the partisan band. Pregnant women would only slow the group down, and babies would cry out unexpectedly, making them especially dangerous to a group that has to rely on stealth to survive. Other disturbing instances are also recounted, making this book difficult to read. At the same time, these disturbing images also help the reader to better understand what it must have been like for such a young child to endure such a dreadful situation.
This is not a memoir that only deals with the horrors and degradations of the situation, but one that also recounts the good times, the acts of heroism and self-sacrifice that enabled those hiding in the woods to have hope that one day, the situation would indeed improve, and that, even after such horrific circumstances, there would be life, and happiness, and a return to normality.
Miriam survived the war, as did her parents. Other members of her family were not so lucky. However, the end of the war did not end the family's difficulties. The addition of the events that happened after the war ended help to fully round out Miriam's story and to show that 'the story' did not end with liberation. As with most of the survivors of the Holocaust, the end of the war meant searching for lost loved-ones, often a stint in a DP camp (displaced person camp that more often than not was more like a prison camp), and much hard work and sacrifice as the survivors strove to rebuild their lives, often in a foreign land.
Despite having missed out on many years of schooling, Miriam went on to become a bacteriologist, an artist, and a writer. This book includes a selection of her poems and a collection of family photographs. From beginning to end, Amidst the Shadows of Trees presents a compelling and intense glimpse of one young girl's experiences during the Holocaust. It also provides a unique look at the role that Jews played in the Resistance movement in Eastern Europe. This remarkable memoir is well suited for inclusion in both public and private libraries, and would make an especially valuable addition to middle and high school libraries.
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