A Memoir of Survival in World War II
By Mala Kacenberg
In the woods outside Tarnogrod, Poland, in October 1942, an orphaned 14-year-old Jewish girl and her cat hide in the shadows between fallen tree trunks while a pair of SS men lounge nearby, taking whiffs of forest air, eating biscuits, drinking wine, singing victory songs and gloating over the jewelry they’ve collected from their victims that day: “Yes, they will be lovely presents for our wives.” Finally the SS men mount their horses and ride off, not knowing they’ve been watched, not imagining that the person who saw them was recording everything in her mind to be documented later, and surely not conceiving the thought that occurs to this solitary girl as she hears them singing: “I felt like taking some branches and hitting them on the backs of their heads. I felt like hitting them many times — one for every person they had killed or tortured.”
The observer is Mala Szorer (the future Mala Kacenberg), whose six-year fight for survival is the subject of her recently republished memoir (the more aptly titled original, “Alone in the Forest,” was published by CIS in 1995). Despite the difficulties that inhere in Holocaust memoir — we believe we know this history, and its subject matter defies language — “Mala’s Cat” is fresh, unsentimental and utterly unpredictable. (It is not in any real way about a cat, though cat lovers won’t be disappointed: You, too, will be satisfied by the cleverness, resourcefulness and fidelity of Mala’s feline companion, Malach, whom she fancies to be her guardian angel.)
After she witnesses the coldblooded killing of her older brother and, soon afterward, the violent roundup and deportation of her family and of every Jewish person in her town, Mala escapes into the forest and fends for herself for months, relying on the kindness of residents of the surrounding towns for food and clothing. (Those residents are equally likely to turn Jews over to the Nazis, a phenomenon Mala witnesses more than once.) When cold weather threatens, Mala adopts a false Christian identity and joins a forced labor detail bound for Germany, where she hides in plain sight as a maid in a small restaurant-hotel until the end of the war in Europe.
All of this is far easier said than done: The memoir is a chronicle of Kacenberg’s astonishing creativity, intelligence, courage and plain old chutzpah. She is wise beyond her years, knowing when she needs to eat and sleep and grieve, and even when she needs to do what is not wise (“I had to go to Tarnogrod once more to convince myself that there was no more future for me among my own people”). And she’s sensitive to millions of near-invisible threats and opportunities: a seeming ally’s hostile eyes, a fellow laborer’s overfriendliness, a Ukrainian overseer’s vanity. Most threatening, time and again, is the encroachment of her own despair; but, as Kacenberg writes: “More and more, I became determined to put up a struggle and die a hero’s death if need be. … So what if I was only a young girl with no one to teach me how to do it?”
What really guides Mala, what keeps her company at night, is a powerful and unshakable sense of her own self-worth, and of the injustice of her situation: “I always came to the same conclusion. I was innocent, and it was my pursuers who should have been hunted, not I.” This is the ultimate source of her fierceness — this, and her faith in a divine plan, of which she is just one small part. And, perhaps most compellingly, the desire to capture her experience for posterity, to “make sure the whole world remembered what the Germans had done. I desperately wanted to survive even if it was only for that purpose.”
As Rebecca Frankel, author of “Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love,” pointed out in these pages not long ago, the stories of the 25,000 Jews who survived the war in the woods of Eastern Europe are just beginning to come to light. This memoir, rescued from obscurity by the efforts of Mala Kacenberg’s five children, should be read and cherished as a new, vital document of a history that must never be allowed to vanish.