In this brief memoir, Miriam Brysk takes us from her birth in Warsaw in 1935 through the terrors of trying to survive on the run, beginning with the German invasion of Warsaw and her family’s escape to Lida in eastern Poland, then occupied by the Soviets. The Nazis soon marched into Lida, first herding the Jews into a ghetto and by May 1942 rounding them up for transport. “They came like butchers lusting for blood… They hit us with metal pipes and with the butts of their guns to force us to run faster.”
The family was marked for “selection” when a Nazi officer recognized Dr. Chaim Miasnik, Miriam’s father, and pulled him out of the line — the Germans had need of doctors, even Jewish ones. So did the Partisans in the nearby Lipiczany Forest; they kidnapped Dr. Miasnik, who refused to go unless his wife and daughter went with him. They spent the next three years running and hiding from German patrols through dense forest and swampland. Meanwhile, Dr. Miasnik was often called away to operate on the wounded who couldn’t be moved and was forced to leave his wife and daughter behind, though not before he shaved Miriam’s head and dressed her in boy’s clothes to try to protect her against rape.
Each day had its unique terrors. One night mother and daughter were hiding with others in a pit near a large spruce tree. “Suddenly, we heard noises in the distance,” Brysk writes; “then we heard men speaking German .… Mama held me tightly, my head buried in her chest.” Call it good fortune: the Germans did not bring dogs to sniff them out and there was no moon to give them away.
At war’s end, the Soviets awarded Dr. Miasnik the Order of Lenin for saving so many lives. Though the family made its way to Belarus, life under the Soviets held little promise. Thus began new dangers as they made their way, without papers, across one European border after another, eventually reaching Italy and immigrating to the US in 1947.
The harrowing years in the Lipiczany Forest is the major narrative; the undertext, though, is Miriam’s brutalized emotional life at the hands of her parents. If her mother could be passive and dismissive, her father was often ferociously angry, belittling the intelligence of his only child even as she grew into adulthood, and sometimes smacking her in fits of rage.
At twenty, Miriam married Henry Brysk, an academic, and eventually went on herself to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University in bacterial physiology, later becoming chair of dermatology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Despite her achievements, Brysk suffered through “bouts of depression, feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, and anxiety from years of being thought of as stupid.” Only years of hard therapy enabled her to recover. Retiring in 1985 from her chair of dermatology, she began pursuing the life of an artist.
Miriam Brysk’s stories of life in the forest are riveting — they give us glimpses into the astonishing resilience of which a seemingly ordinary child is capable in her will, against all odds, to survive and carry on. Photos.