Amidst the Shad­ows of Trees: A Holo­caust Child’s Sur­vival in the Partisans

Miri­am M. Brysk; Michael Baren­baum, intro.
  • Review
By – January 24, 2014

In this brief mem­oir, Miri­am Brysk takes us from her birth in War­saw in 1935 through the ter­rors of try­ing to sur­vive on the run, be­ginning with the Ger­man inva­sion of War­saw and her family’s escape to Lida in east­ern Poland, then occu­pied by the Sovi­ets. The Nazis soon marched into Lida, first herd­ing the Jews into a ghet­to and by May 1942 round­ing them up for trans­port. They came like butch­ers lust­ing for blood… They hit us with met­al pipes and with the butts of their guns to force us to run faster.”

The fam­i­ly was marked for selec­tion” when a Nazi offi­cer rec­og­nized Dr. Chaim Mias­nik, Miriam’s father, and pulled him out of the line — the Ger­mans had need of doc­tors, even Jew­ish ones. So did the Par­ti­sans in the near­by Lipiczany For­est; they kid­napped Dr. Mias­nik, who refused to go unless his wife and daugh­ter went with him. They spent the next three years run­ning and hid­ing from Ger­man patrols through dense for­est and swamp­land. Mean­while, Dr. Mias­nik was often called away to oper­ate on the wound­ed who couldn’t be moved and was forced to leave his wife and daugh­ter behind, though not before he shaved Miriam’s head and dressed her in boy’s clothes to try to pro­tect her against rape.

Each day had its unique ter­rors. One night moth­er and daugh­ter were hid­ing with oth­ers in a pit near a large spruce tree. Sud­den­ly, we heard nois­es in the dis­tance,” Brysk writes; then we heard men speak­ing Ger­man .… Mama held me tight­ly, my head buried in her chest.” Call it good for­tune: the Ger­mans did not bring dogs to sniff them out and there was no moon to give them away.

At war’s end, the Sovi­ets award­ed Dr. Mias­nik the Order of Lenin for sav­ing so many lives. Though the fam­i­ly made its way to Belarus, life under the Sovi­ets held lit­tle promise. Thus began new dan­gers as they made their way, with­out papers, across one Euro­pean bor­der after anoth­er, even­tu­al­ly reach­ing Italy and immi­grat­ing to the US in 1947.

The har­row­ing years in the Lipiczany For­est is the major nar­ra­tive; the under­text, though, is Miriam’s bru­tal­ized emo­tion­al life at the hands of her par­ents. If her moth­er could be pas­sive and dis­mis­sive, her father was often fero­cious­ly angry, belit­tling the intel­li­gence of his only child even as she grew into adult­hood, and some­times smack­ing her in fits of rage.

At twen­ty, Miri­am mar­ried Hen­ry Brysk, an aca­d­e­m­ic, and even­tu­al­ly went on her­self to earn a Ph.D. from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in bac­te­r­i­al phys­i­ol­o­gy, lat­er becom­ing chair of der­ma­tol­ogy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas Med­ical Branch in Galve­ston. Despite her achieve­ments, Brysk suf­fered through bouts of depres­sion, feel­ings of worth­less­ness, inad­e­qua­cy, and anx­i­ety from years of being thought of as stu­pid.” Only years of hard ther­a­py enabled her to recov­er. Retir­ing in 1985 from her chair of der­ma­tol­ogy, she began pur­su­ing the life of an artist.

Miri­am Brysk’s sto­ries of life in the for­est are riv­et­ing — they give us glimpses into the aston­ish­ing resilience of which a seem­ing­ly ordi­nary child is capa­ble in her will, against all odds, to sur­vive and car­ry on. Photos.

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

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