Into the For­est: A Holo­caust Sto­ry of Sur­vival, Tri­umph, and Love

By – November 29, 2021

Rebec­ca Frankel’s Into the For­est: A Holo­caust Sto­ry of Sur­vival, Tri­umph, and Love helps read­ers grap­ple with the incom­pre­hen­si­bil­i­ty of the Shoah by telling the sur­vival sto­ry of one fam­i­ly: Miri­am, Mor­ris, Tania, and Rochel Rabi­nowitz, who escaped from the Zhetel ghet­to into the Białowieża For­est, where they hid for over two years. Read­ers will find that Into the For­est is metic­u­lous­ly researched and beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten; weav­ing his­tor­i­cal facts with first-hand accounts, Frankel employs an almost nov­el­is­tic style that makes for a tru­ly com­pelling read.

The Rabi­nowitz family’s sur­vival sto­ry had an unlike­ly hap­py end­ing. The author’s con­nec­tion to the Rabi­nowitz sis­ters, which is revealed toward the end of the nar­ra­tive, pro­vides unprece­dent­ed access to their mem­o­ries. While the fam­i­ly is for­tu­nate that, due to Miri­am and Mor­ris’ cal­cu­lat­ed risks and no small dose of luck, they nev­er saw the inside of a death camp, Frankel makes it clear that life in hid­ing came with its own dan­gers. The fam­i­ly faced typhus, sub-zero win­ters, food short­ages, and the con­stant threat of bombs, Nazi sol­diers, and mer­ce­nar­ies who were paid to hunt for Jews. The Rabi­now­itzes lost many of their extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends despite the extreme mea­sures Miri­am and Mor­ris took to try and pro­tect them, includ­ing an instance when Mor­ris risked death to try and save his moth­er, sis­ter, and young nephew. In anoth­er instance, Miri­am takes an unac­com­pa­nied boy under her pro­tec­tion dur­ing the first ghet­to selec­tion,” when Nazis would select who would be sent to their deaths — a sim­ple but dan­ger­ous kind­ness that has an unfore­seen impact on both of their lives.

The for­ti­tude, brav­ery, and love it took this fam­i­ly to sur­vive the ghet­to and hid­ing in the woods — with two small chil­dren, no less — is astound­ing, and Frankel’s com­pelling medi­a­tion of their expe­ri­ences is sure to inspire read­ers. We owe it to the dead to remem­ber, to tell their sto­ries. But we also owe it to our­selves to share not just the tragedy, but also the mir­a­cles that occurred among the death and destruction.

Discussion Questions

Into the For­est tells the sto­ry of Miri­am and Mor­ris Rabi­nowitz, who escaped from the Nazi-occu­pied Pol­ish town of Zhetel (today in Belarus) with their young daugh­ters, Tonia and Rochel, in 1942. The fam­i­ly spent the next two years togeth­er in the Bialowieza For­est, endur­ing hard­ship upon hard­ship until they were lib­er­at­ed by the Sovi­ets, and then even­tu­al­ly made their way to the Unit­ed States.

Rebec­ca Frankel’s com­pelling writ­ing brings their har­row­ing expe­ri­ences to life. Draw­ing on her inter­views with Tonia and Rochel (now Ruth), and sup­ple­ment­ed by her own metic­u­lous research, Frankel tells their sto­ry in vivid detail, help­ing read­ers to tru­ly empathize with the small num­ber of Jews — most­ly par­ti­sans but also some fam­i­lies like the Rabi­now­itzes — who were able to sur­vive the Holo­caust in the for­est under almost unimag­in­able cir­cum­stances, bat­tling dis­ease, freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, lice, and hunger, all while hid­ing from the Nazi mur­der­ers and their local col­lab­o­ra­tors who came hunt­ing for them.

Frankel also sit­u­ates this family’s sto­ry in the larg­er his­to­ry of the Holo­caust to under­score how unusu­al their sur­vival was. We are con­stant­ly remind­ed of how excep­tion­al Mor­ris Rabi­nowitz was in hav­ing the skills to con­struct hid­den hide­outs to pro­tect his fam­i­ly in the mid­dle of the for­est, and in hav­ing pre-war knowl­edge of the ter­rain and some local Chris­t­ian farm­ers. Miri­am also had unique sur­vival skills as a result of her pre­war expe­ri­ences as a phar­ma­cist, and her innate ingenuity.

The book’s amaz­ing twist, in which the fam­i­ly recon­nects in Amer­i­ca with anoth­er sur­vivor, whom Miri­am had saved in those dark days, pro­vides a heart­warm­ing end, with­out ever seek­ing to over­shad­ow, much less redeem, the suf­fer­ing and loss it recounts