Mala’s Cat: A Mem­oir of Sur­vival in World War II

Mala Kacen­berg

  • Review
By – May 2, 2022

Mala’s Cat is the true sto­ry of an obser­vant young Jew­ish girl’s improb­a­ble sur­vival dur­ing World War II.

Mala Kacen­berg (née Szor­er) opens her mem­oir by inform­ing read­ers that the three of her nine sib­lings who died dur­ing infan­cy before the war were the lucky ones. She describes a nor­mal life and hap­py child­hood in pre­war Poland near a deep for­est. When she is twelve years old, the Ger­mans bru­tal­ly occu­py her vil­lage of Tarnogród, and Mala nar­row­ly escapes an attack that kills her broth­er. Nev­er­the­less, she is record­ed as dead, which allows her to help pro­vide food and pro­vi­sions for her starv­ing fam­i­ly. With this mis­sion, Mala removes her gold star and ven­tures into the forest.

Kacen­berg chron­i­cles her aston­ish­ing cre­ativ­i­ty and quick think­ing in mat­ter-of-fact, unsen­ti­men­tal lan­guage. Mala remains resource­ful and coura­geous as atroc­i­ties mount, includ­ing the mass depor­ta­tion and mur­der of her fam­i­ly along with all the Jews of Tarnogród. A poly­glot with a tal­ent for act­ing, Mala pre­tends to be a Pol­ish Catholic girl as she makes her way from town to town and even­tu­al­ly into Ger­many pos­ing as a Chris­t­ian slave labor­er. Even when on rare occa­sions she sens­es kind­ness in peo­ple, Mala can­not trust any­one with her true iden­ti­ty until the end of the war. With­out slow­ing the book’s quick pace, Kacen­berg shares moments of lone­li­ness and hope and pon­ders her own will to sur­vive in the face of terror.

Young Mala is per­cep­tive to threats every­where: for­mer school­mates and their fam­i­lies, the sus­pi­cion of a would-be-rescuer’s neigh­bors, a fel­low laborer’s jeal­ousy, a Pol­ish suit­or. Though Mala is clever and com­pe­tent as no child should ever have to be, that she is con­tin­u­al­ly able to out­wit and elude Nazi sol­diers, offi­cers, and col­lab­o­ra­tors is noth­ing short of mirac­u­lous. Despite the book’s title and the author’s appre­ci­a­tion of her com­pan­ion, the cat who is fre­quent­ly at Mala’s side does not fea­ture promi­nent­ly in the action. Mala names the cat Malach, angel” in Hebrew, and indeed the sto­ry is full of what must be divine intervention.

The book con­tin­ues after the Ger­man defeat as Mala, by then an old­er teenag­er, returns to Poland escap­ing post­war per­ils and mak­ing her way through shel­ters. She car­ries the bur­dens of her trau­ma and grief and begins to tran­si­tion from wartime sur­vival into soci­ety when she moves to the UK and back into a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Kacenberg’s detailed con­tin­u­a­tion of her sto­ry in the post­war peri­od is one of this book’s many praise­wor­thy con­tri­bu­tions with­in the genre of Holo­caust memoir.

There will always be more to learn and remem­ber from some of human­i­ty’s dark­est hours, but in 2022 it is increas­ing­ly unusu­al to dis­cov­er a new­ly pub­lished Holo­caust mem­oir. It is rar­er still to encounter first-hand sto­ries of sur­vival in the east­ern forests and hid­ing in plain sight, let alone in a voice that sur­pris­es. Woven togeth­er from diaries and scraps of Kacenberg’s writ­ing and pub­lished posthu­mous­ly, read­ers are blessed with just such a mem­oir in the pro­found­ly mov­ing Mala’s Cat.

Lind­sey Bod­ner is a writer and an edu­ca­tion foun­da­tion direc­tor. She lives in Man­hat­tan with her family.

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