I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about World War II and the Nazis. This election season has been the perfect time to rediscover Louise Murphy’s novel from 2003, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel . An account of a brother and sister who survive the Holocaust, this novel follows the structure and reinvents the stock characters of the famous fairy tale. The witch is an old Romani woman, an outcast and a keeper of secrets, who takes the children in. The stepmother encourages abandoning the children but then reappears when she is most needed, to perform an unselfish act. The woodsman is both pariah and hero. Hansel and Gretel themselves are two Jewish children who must give up their real names and heritage and then rely on the forest, and the decency of strangers, to teach them everything.
Murphy’s novel examines the brutality of the SS and is very much like a Grimm tale in its violence, including unfortunate but necessary scenes that depict the mutilation of children. The source of evil in this novel is the doomed Nazi project of assimilation, which does nothing more than prove the impossibility of purity. Here the Nazis are the real witches, stealing children with Aryan features to populate their new Germany. Children in danger are the stars of the fairy tale genre, and Murphy will have you holding your breath as you see what happens to these siblings.
The author’s ingenuity in reworking certain fairy tale motifs is exceptional. A tank painted white for winter camouflage becomes a swan that ferries the children to safety. The infamous oven of the original tale plays multiple roles, including hiding the children to keeping them safe. Later the “witch” character ends up in another famous oven, at Birkenau. Breadcrumbs are sprinkled throughout the novel, linking hunger, loss and family love. They lead Hansel back to his father after a journey that has taken the children out of the forest and all the way to the refugee center in the city of Bialystok:
“He was crying now. He moved away from his sister and crouched on the floor, sweeping the crumbs up and putting them in his pockets, trying to get every one. He followed the trail of flakes from the dozens and dozens of loaves of bread brought out of the ovens, and he was determined to pick up all the bread, all the luck that he had dropped and thrown away. He crawled across the floor, white-faced, intent, not missing a crumb.”
In Murphy’s hands the ancient Bialowieza Forest becomes so much more than a setting. It is a place to hide and a place to be lost. It provides refuge to Hansel and Gretel and to the partisans who, despite their own differences, fight the German forces. It is a site of violence against animals and humans and at the same time a place of joy, miracles and forgiveness.
Whether you see the original “Hansel and Gretel” as a fairy tale about hunger, or a story of family politics, Murphy’s retelling never ceases to impress with its originality and depth. Human cruelty exists alongside acts of courage and selflessness. This “Hansel and Gretel” ultimately concerns the reinvention of the self, a constant theme for those who fled Hitler’s Europe. It is no accident that we are never told the children’s real names.