“The story has been told over and over by liars and it must be retold.”
In the winter of 1943, on the outskirts of a dark forest, two Jewish children flee the Nazis with their father and stepmother. In a moment of desperation, the children are given the aliases Hansel and Gretel and sent alone into the woods to hide. Gretel leads her younger brother in search of food and protection, while Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs behind so that their father might find them again. So begins The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, which takes us along on their journey into a forest more ancient than man. In a landscape populated by exotic beasts, refugees, and revolutionaries, the two children embark upon a new life as Christian orphans, protected by a woman who is called Magda the witch and whose tiny hut is heated by an enormous baker’s oven.
In this extraordinary novel by Louise Murphy, a fairy tale is reimagined and a war story retold. It is the story of individuals striving to survive and a village trying to outlast a war. Magda the witch lives on the edge of Piaski, in a region of Eastern Poland that has been overrun first by Russians and now by Germans. Her family is an assortment of outsiders: her brother Piotr, a fallen priest, her great-niece Nelka, a beauty in love with an enigmatic woodsman, her dead grandmother, a Gypsy and an abortionist. The villagers are terrorized by a small but vicious Nazi presence and weary at the end of a war that has brought them many conquerors and few saviors. Murphy unflinchingly presents the war as a landscape of horrors, the village humiliated under the yoke of ruthless SS officers and by the necessities of survival under unbearable circumstances.
We also follow the trials of Hansel and Gretel’s father, who endures a brutal winter of revolutionary action and personal transformation, all the while preoccupied with the fear that his children may not survive and the hope that he will find them again. This unique novel gives voice to figures that have before now been underrepresented in the writing of World War II: the voices of Jews who hid in the forests, of men and women who participated in resistance movements, and of Polish civilians. These characters struggle with their relationship with God, with their disgust for a humanity in crisis, and with the desire to define a new and more just world.
Yet Murphy manages to maintain the fairy-tale foundation of her story, returning again and again to the elements of an old story to infuse meaning into a newer one. The Bialowieza Forest, the oldest in Europe, is a place of mysterious and untouched beauty, and its lessons for the children and for humanity permeate the book. Murphy juxtaposes horror with lyricism, reality with magic. The primal nature of war is met by the primal power of story—and the belief that love can rescue humans from their worst capabilities. Hansel and Gretel are on a quest to reclaim their identities, and the witch and the forest—the world of the fairy tale—show them the way.
In prose both luminous and enlightening, Murphy explores the power of memory, the necessity of love in times of great trauma, and the redemption that can come about through the refusal to erase one’s own past. This is the tale of two brave children who never give up, of women who refuse to be defined by convention, and of the bitter cost of survival. Over the course of the winter, Hansel and Gretel will come of age. Their mother dead, their father and stepmother in hiding, by necessity forced to alter their own identities, they become survivors.
Louise Murphy, winner of a Writers Digest Award for formal poetry, is the author of the novel The Sea Within and a book for children, My Garden. She is a regular contributor to numerous literary and poetry journals.
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is in part the retelling of a classic fairy tale. How long have you had an interest in fairy tales and in the story of Hansel and Gretel in particular?
As a child, I did not like most fairy tales, particularly this one. The deep unconscious meanings in those stories triggered my nightmares. In college I took a folklore course that fascinated me as we traced and studied the folk motifs that are found in every culture.
The original fairy tale is actually quite frightening; is that one reason why you chose it as a frame for this harrowing tale?
This is the fairy tale that scared me the most when I was a child. It mirrors my worst adult fears about what the abandon-ment and blind violence of war does to children all over the world.
You seem to try to redeem certain characters, particularly women, from the traditional stereotyping they receive in fairy tales and elsewhere. The stepmother and the witch, two types often vilified, are portrayed very positively. Were you conscious of this as a feminist project? And are these stereotypes the kinds of lies that you have Magda refer to at the start?
Stereotypes are always lies. It was the idea of “the witch” that began my struggle to understand Magda and then all the other characters. Our culture denigrates older women, yet they are often the ones who protect and nurture everyone in the family. As many “blended” families demonstrate, there are loving stepparents in every culture. I don’t like stereotypes of any group of people.
This story takes place in a particular region of Eastern Poland. How did you learn about the history of the area, and what kind of research did you do for the book? How did you balance research and storytelling?
I have no personal memories of World War II. It is all history for me, so I was lucky to have the Holocaust Library in San Francisco and the University of California library nearby with its huge collection of books. I read for three years and took hundreds of pages of notes to understand the area and the people, the timetable of the war and the daily details of life in a Polish village during World War II. Ultimately, it is the characters that matter to me. They take over the novel and drive the plot, but research gives the novelist ideas, and the setting of any story becomes part of its power.
The Bialowieza Forest is one of the last patches of primeval growth in Europe. It seems like the perfect setting for a fairy tale, a place where stories might both emerge and endure, almost outside of time. How did you find out about this forest, and have you ever actually been there?
I have never visited the forest. I learned of it while watching television! It was a program on the Bialowieza Forest, and it was like watching a film about a country in your dreams. I saw the program several years before I began the book, and vaguely thought it would be a wonderful place to set the Magda story, if I ever wrote it.
This region was also home to many of Hitler’s concentration camps. Many people identify the Holocaust with Germany and have less information about the events that took place in Poland. Is this a reason why you chose to set the story in Poland rather than in Germany?
Poland was called “the anvil of the devil” during the war. The German master plan was to kill all the Jews, Gypsies, dissidents and leaders in Poland, then starve off the old and the very young, leaving a work force to build cities for the new German world order. Children who looked Aryan must be kidnapped and “saved,” because the Germans did not have enough population for their grandiose scheme. At the end of the building, all the remaining Polish workers would be killed in the camps. Setting a novel in this place allowed me to show the horrors of war against children and civilians and put my characters in situations where they had to make hard decisions daily.
You certainly do not flinch from depicting acts of true horror, and characters like the Oberführer seem to typify the Nazi as an incarnation of evil. With other characters, including some of the Polish citizens and Major Frankel in particular, you step away from such absolute characteristics and tread more in the realm of psychological ambiguity. Guilty though these characters are, you make them human beings. Was this difficult, especially when writing about such an iconic and horrific event?
I honestly do not understand the psychotic desire to control, torture, and kill that the Oberführer represents, and he was the most difficult character to portray. I experimented with humanizing him, but it was like saying that “after all, Hitler loved his dogs.” No humanizing can explain and forgive such evil. Men like the Oberführer appear when historical events give them permission to use this dark side of the human imagination. Major Frankel is a very different type. He is a man in a dirty war who began as a patriot. He is every soldier, a normal man caught up in the dehumanizing actions that war demands.
Did you ever get just plain depressed by the actions some of the characters take (or are forced to take), and did you ever feel the urge to make parts of the book less graphic and therefore less painful? How difficult was it to envision a happy ending?
The research was so chilling that sometimes I would leave the library and take a walk in the sun, but writing the story, I could create a rescuer like Magda. I could save the children from death, which made a happy ending tempered by tragedy. When I finished the writing, I realized that I had not killed a single child in the novel. You hear of children dying, but do not see it. This was unconscious on my part and quite unrealistic since Poland lost over twenty percent of her children. I procrastinated writing Magda’s death scene for weeks. As soon as I accepted that I couldn’t bear to kill Magda, I sat down and wrote the chapter. It was terrible to kill a character I loved so much even though she is only a part of my imagination.
Though the novel is called The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, it is also the story of the father and stepmother, of Magda and her brother, and of the entire village of Piaski. How did you incorporate so many different voices into one narrative? Were any of these characters based on real people?
None of the characters were based on people I know. When I write a novel, I seem to create characters who are people I would like to meet, people I hope exist, people I hope to become myself someday, or people that frighten me. If my life requires it, I want Magda’s courage, Father Piotr’s self-knowledge, the Major’s strength, Nelka and Telek’s passion, and Hansel’s capacity for survival.
How important was it to you, as the author, to let there be satisfaction for certain characters, and justice for others? Did you feel a responsibility to lend a kind of moral balance to a situation that was distinctly unjust?
Like most people who read about the Holocaust and the circumstances of any people occupied and at war, I long for justice. The story of Father Piotr and his final actions is a very complicated effort to show a man yearning for justice for himself and his family. I punish the Oberführer at the end, but I hope the lingering fear is present in the reader that this man will return, as evil always returns to haunt us. The responsibility of the artist is to try and find the truth, regardless of whether it is comfortable or not, but the moral balance is ultimately on the side of good people who manage to save children by courageous action.
The ultimate goal of the story seems to be to pass on hope, and to praise the value of love; this is certainly how Magda, as the narrator, frames the tale. How difficult was it to keep the idea of love meaningful while also writing so unflinchingly about evil?
I never really thought in terms of what abstract ideas I was presenting or not presenting while writing. Most novel writers become so involved in creating the characters and the plot, we leave the analysis to others. After the novel is done, we see things we did that weren’t consciously conceived, and good readers tell us things we didn’t see while we wrote. It is after the novel is completed that we find out what we, in our deepest heart, believe about life, and that is our own truth we give the world in our art. I believe there are as many truths about life as there are artists.
You dedicate this novel to your son. What are your thoughts about passing on memories and knowledge about the Holocaust to younger generations? Is this topic one that you plan to keep to in future writing, or do you feel that now you will move on?
Watching my son and a daughter become adults, I have been impressed with how much harder their decisions are than when I was growing up. The fluidity of values, the availability of drugs, the commonplace of divorce and the movement of people every few years to find work has changed our world. I hope, perhaps too optimistically, that by showing the darkness of the Holocaust to our young adults, we will teach them to reject racism and war.
I was born in 1943, perhaps the darkest year the world has ever seen. Because I was born in the United States, I survived, but felt compelled to understand the time of my own birth. For all of my reading and work, I will never “understand” the Holocaust. It is too huge, too terrible to categorize or comprehend, but this novel is the best I can do to present the period that so deeply disturbs me. I doubt that I will write about this again.