Monday, May 11, 2015

Escaping Into The Night by D.Dina Friedman

Escaping Into The Night is a compelling story about the flight of Jewish residents of Nowogrodek, Poland into the nearby forest, in an attempt to flee from the murderous Nazis. The city which was part of Poland, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. In June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Nowogrodek. Almost half of the city's population were Jewish. As in other Polish cities, the Jew population living in Nowogrodek was forced into a ghetto and then subjected to repeated "actions". By the end of the war only five hundred and fifty Jews remained out of a population of ten thousand. Many Jews in the ghetto managed to flee into the nearby forest where they remained hidden until the end of the war. Friedman has written a fictional account of what that escape and living in the forest under such difficult circumstances might have been like. She was inspired to write this story after reading about Tuvia Bielski, who according Friedman's website "organized a network of encampments in the forests of western Belorussia that offered protection to over 1200 Jewish men, women and children who were able to escape from the ghettos.

Thirteen year old Halina Rudowski lives in the Nowogrodek ghetto with her Mama. Halina's family lived in Berlin, Germany before the war. Her family was sent to Poland by the Germans (who deported all Jews). They went to her mother's village but then  were made to move to Nowogrodek. Her mother's boyfriend, Georg Goldmann, has told them that the Nazi's are about to have another "selection" and he pleads with them to flee to the forest. But Halina's mama believes that as a member of the Jewish police in the ghetto, Georg can protect them. Halina doubts this because Georg was not able to save her friend Batya Rojak's brother, Yosl, who was taken away.

While her mother and the Rojaks work at the munitions factory, Halina works as a cleaner at the commander's home. The commander's wife is kind to Halina, often feeding her extra food. One night after returning home from work, Georg meets Halina at her apartment and tells her that her mother along with everyone else at the munitions factory has been taken and that the Germans are planning to "liquidate" the ghetto in three days. Georg tells Halina that the escape route is ready but they need to bribe the right people. Later on Batya comes to Halina's apartment and tells her that all the men including her father and brothers were rounded up and sent on trains while the women were shot next to a deep pit.Batya tells Halina she must be ready to escape the ghetto that night.

With the help of Batya, Halina puts on extra clothes as well as her mother's heavy black coat.Halina and Batya are led by Georg to the synagogue basement where a tunnel connecting to the sewer line has been dug. Georg does not accompany them as he has to try to help as many people escape the ghetto as possible. Halina and Batya are accompanied by three brothers, Abel, Max and Reuven Weissman who is Halina's age.  The tunnel, which is dark and smells of sewage and vomit, leads them out of town to a dirt road. The group walks all night and then hides in a grove of fir trees during the first day. When they arrive the next night at the farm that was supposed to take them in, they find it has been burned to the ground.

The next day Abel, Max and Batya decide to go into town to see what food they can find, leaving Halina and Reuven at the Orvatski farm. However, Batya and the older brothers never return and several days later Halina's group are found by partisans who are hiding in the nearby woods. Reuven wants to stay and wait for his brothers to return but the partisans tell him if the brothers are in the village they will find them. The group is taken by Grolsky and another man, along with an older couple, the Fiozman's to the partisan camp in the forest.

In the camp, which is run by Mr. Moskin, life is rustic; people sleep in a ziemlanka, a sort of dugout hidden by branches. Batya is eventually recovered by the partisans and tells Reuven his brothers were murdered by the German soldiers in the town.  Reuven begs Moskin to find his brothers but they tell him that the town was taken days earlier by the Nazis. For Halina, the camp offers her a chance to find peace and to rest after the traumatic events of the past months. Despite being haunted by Batya's revelation of her mother's murder, she willingly begins helping out in any way she can. Trapped between the Russian army to the east and the Nazi's who have overrun villages in the west, Halina, Reuven and the partisan's struggle to survive culminates in a battle that leaves them questioning the meaning of family and faith.

Discussion

Escaping Into The Night is a well written novel about a little known aspect of the Second World War in eastern Europe - the escape of thousands of Jews who managed to hide from the Nazis in forests for the duration of the war.  Friedman realistically portrays the horrors of war without being too graphic for the younger readers the book is geared to. Batya's rape and torture is only hinted at and her description of what happened to Halina's mother is brief and simple. Nevertheless, Halina's narrative manages to portray the hardship of the partisans, the sense of loss and the fear of discovery that many of the Jewish survivors had to cope with.

Both Halina and Batya are strong female characters who show remarkable resilience and courage - characteristics common among Holocaust survivors. Thirteen year old Halina looks up to the older Batya who sets an example of courage and determination by volunteering to be part of a scouting party to search for food for the partisans. Batya did this even after witnessing Reuven's two older brothers, Max and Abel, murdered by the Germans and barely escaping herself. When Batya's request is dismissed, Batya argues, "I'm fifteen. According to religious law, if I were a man, I'd have full adult privileges...It's better for us young people to go. We're strong and healthy, and most of us are orphans..." Batya argues that she has been lucky, having escaped the Germans twice.

Escaping Into the Night is also a coming of age story. Halina meets the much older Eli Koussivitsky in the partisan camp. Eli plays the Russian Waltz, a song Halina had been singing, on his violin. His direct manner and his beautiful playing capture her heart, leading Halina to quickly become infatuated with him. "No one had ever looked at me so long and so hard."  Halina's first kiss is shared with Eli, whom she lies to about her age.  But Halina is stunned when she, Reuven and the severely injured Batya encounter Eli in the forest with his girlfriend. Despite the desperate circumstances, Halina is still upset and feels betrayed. However, Eli later explains to Halina that he didn't mean to mislead her, that her beautiful singing made him behave inappropriately and he begs her forgiveness. Eli wants this forgiveness because he is going on a dangerous mission which may cost him his life. As Halina struggles to come to terms with the fact that Eli's feelings are not those of romantic love, he gives her the gift of his violin, telling her to use her gift of singing and to one day learn to play the violin. Later on when Eli does not return from his mission, Georg explains to Halina his bravery and that it is dangerous time to love, that the German's manipulated anyone they knew had attachments to others. All of this helps Halina mature and understand the sacrifice Eli and others are making in the fight against the Nazis.

A strong theme throughout the novel is that of the role of faith in difficult times. Batya and Reuven represent opposite sides of the theme of faith; Batya, despite the loss of her family continues to practice her faith diligently while Reuven believes they have been abandoned by God.  Reuven asks Halina,
" 'Do you believe in God?' Reuven asked.
'I don't know. I'd like to, but I don't know.'

'I don't,' Reuven said. 'If there were a God, He would never have let this happen to us.' "
Halina notes that "Batya had lost her entire family, yet when we reached the barn, she had whispered her morning prayers under her breath. Was this just a habit, or did she still believe?'

When Reuven, Halina and Batya are rescued and taken to the partisan's camp, the commander of the camp, Moskin tells Reuven that there is only so much they can do.
"The commander gazed at Reuven thoughtfully. 'I pray that God delivers your brothers safely, and your friend Batya, too. We'll have to leave it in His hands."
'How can you even talk of praying after all that has happened?" Reuven choked as he spoke, trying to block the sobs. 'How can you trust God to do anything?'

Moskin tells Reuven that he is not a religious man, "But I've learned that there are times to fight, and other times where the only thing we can do is to pray."

When Reuven learns the fate of his brothers he concludes "God is dead." Reuven said. "God is dead and so are my brothers. I spent all day praying to a dead god." But Halina isn't having any of Reuven's self-pity, telling him that everyone has lost someone and that he must focus on the present.

In contrast to Reuven, Batya's life is centered around her Jewish faith. When Reuven asks Batya to tell him what happened to his brothers, she tells him that she recited Kaddish, a Jewish prayer said by mourners and at funerals. It is her way of trying to avoid telling Reuven all the terrible details of their fate. She repeatedly but unintentionally infuriates Reuven by exclaiming Baruch HaShem (Thank God) for their rescue by the partisans. However, after she is assaulted, she tells Halina that she is ruined and that her life doesn't matter anymore. In response to Halina telling her that she cannot expect to live by normal rules, Batya responds, "No. Without rules there would be nothing left. God is giving us a challenge, to see if we can follow the rules even when it's difficult. I failed the challenge." Eventually though, Batya's faith is restored and she prays for Eli and Reuven's safe return from their search for survivors of the attack by the Germans.

The novel also explores the meaning of family. Throughout the novel Halina questions her relationship with Reuven who is a year older. At first he is like a brother but near the end of the novel she begins to wonder if he is more than a brother. When Halina and Reuven are taken to the partisan's camp, they meet a woman Tante Rosa who tells them, "You are our mishpokha now, our family." There are almost a hundred people in the camp, most of them not related to one another. Under the circumstances, the definition of family has changed - it is not necessarily a blood relative anymore. This leads Halina to reconsider what family means and is demonstrated by her actions later on in the novel. After Batya is rescued from the German soldier by Halina and Reuven, as she slips into shock from her injuries, Halina asks Batya to be her sister. When Georg tells Russian medic that Halina is his "takhter" or daughter, Halina bristles at this. She wants to yell that he is not her father but then she questions how this is different from Batya being her sister. "Why shouldn't they be my family?"

Friedman has written a high interest novel, with strong main characters and interesting supporting characters, and the themes of love family and faith. A map of the area the novel is set in would have helped young readers place the events taking place in the novel, which although fictional, are based on real historical events. The dramatic cover will push younger readers to crack the cover.

Book Details:
Escaping Into The Night by D.Dina Friedman
New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers    2006
195 pp.

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