Don’t Tell the Nazis

  • Review
By – January 27, 2020

One of the most dif­fi­cult truths of the Holo­caust for authors to con­front in books for chil­dren is the real­i­ty of col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nazis in East­ern Europe. While there are many accounts of hero­ism in such coun­tries as Lithua­nia, Poland, and Ukraine, his­to­ri­ans have also doc­u­ment­ed how cen­turies of per­va­sive anti­semitism led much of the pop­u­la­tions of those coun­tries to turn against their Jew­ish neigh­bors, even to insti­gate ruth­less vio­lence against them. In Don’t Tell the Nazis, author Mar­sha Forchuk Skry­puch tells the com­pelling sto­ry of one Ukrain­ian fam­i­ly who risked their lives to har­bor Jews under Nazi occu­pa­tion. Her fic­tion­al char­ac­ters are based on real heroes: Katery­na Siko­rs­ka and her daugh­ter Krys­tia, who have been hon­ored as right­eous gen­tiles by Yad Vashem. Skry­puch describes the process by which they came to make their dif­fi­cult choice, empha­siz­ing the over­whelm­ing atmos­phere of ter­ror and oppres­sion in World War II Ukraine. Read­ers expe­ri­ence the con­fu­sion of a young girl and her fam­i­ly as they suf­fer the upheaval of suc­ces­sive occu­pa­tions by the Sovi­ets and the Ger­mans. One cru­cial ele­ment of the sto­ry is omit­ted, that of Ukrain­ian col­lab­o­ra­tion with their Nazi occu­piers, viewed by many as lib­er­a­tors from Sovi­et destruc­tion of Ukrain­ian nation­al­ist aspi­ra­tions. The result is a mov­ing work of fic­tion where sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ters find them­selves trapped in sit­u­a­tions of intense moral test­ing. Yet, the nega­tion of unde­ni­able his­toric truths under­mines some of the book’s pow­er, at times com­pro­mis­ing the cred­i­bil­i­ty of its protagonists.

Through­out the nov­el, Skry­puch repeat­ed­ly equates the evil nature of both the Sovi­et and Nazi regimes. Her Jew­ish char­ac­ters are sym­pa­thet­ic, even noble, and she acknowl­edges that their sta­tus in Ukraine was unique, as the sole focus on Nazi obses­sion with eth­nic cleans­ing. She admits that Ukraini­ans ini­tial­ly wel­comed the Nazis, but doesn’t syn­the­size the impli­ca­tions of this choice, pre­fer­ring to con­clude instead that Ukraini­ans rapid­ly became dis­il­lu­sioned with their new occu­piers. This flawed his­tor­i­cal premise influ­ences Skrypuch’s approach to char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. In one scene, where the remain­ing Jews of the ghet­to are forced onto trains for depor­ta­tion to Belzec death camp, Krys­tia char­ac­ter­izes the community’s response, “…most looked shocked and dis­gust­ed at what the Com­man­dant was doing. Did some of them have Jews …hid­den behind their walls?”

Cen­turies of ten­sion between Ukraine’s Jews and their Chris­t­ian neigh­bors are erased in this nov­el; they are unit­ed in mutu­al respect and hatred of oppres­sion. The char­ac­ters of a Jew­ish doc­tor and her hus­band, Mina and Her­schel Kitai, are beloved in the com­mu­ni­ty. When the Ger­man army arrives and begins to mur­der Jews, Mr. Kitai vol­un­tar­i­ly iden­ti­fies him­self as Jew­ish, and coura­geous­ly speaks out on behalf of the inno­cent vic­tims. How­ev­er, his dia­logue with the sol­diers is uncon­vinc­ing and ide­o­log­i­cal. After thank­ing them for lib­er­at­ing Ukraine from its Russ­ian occu­piers, he states his admi­ra­tion for Ger­man cul­ture and democ­ra­cy.” It is high­ly unlike­ly that a Jew in Nazi-occu­pied Ukraine would have ini­ti­at­ed this exchange with a Nazi offi­cer; Mr. Kitai’s words seem more an expres­sion of the author’s con­vic­tions than of his inher­ent qual­i­ties as a character.

The vil­lains of the nov­el include not only the Nazi mil­i­tary, but the Volks­deutsche, eth­nic Ger­mans who set­tled in the town and were reward­ed for their sup­port of the regime. Their role was indeed sig­nif­i­cant in main­tain­ing Nazi con­trol. Skry­puch, how­ev­er, does not relate even one inci­dent of Ukrain­ian involve­ment in anti­se­mit­ic activ­i­ties; the Volks­deutsche alone deserve con­dem­na­tion for their self­ish amoral­i­ty. One Ger­man char­ac­ter, the black­smith Herr Zim­mer, is accord­ed a dimen­sion of human­i­ty and becomes the motive for Krys­tia to exam­ine her own con­science: I had been so…resentful of the invaders, that I had nev­er stopped to con­sid­er that not all of them were bad. Was I just as guilty as the Nazis of judg­ing oth­ers by things they couldn’t con­trol?” Krystia’s insight makes more sense as a dis­placed defense by the author against charges of Ukrain­ian anti­semitism; Krys­tia and her moth­er are the actu­al proof that every nation­al group dur­ing the Holo­caust includ­ed some mem­bers who defied the norm and stood up for what was right. Yet the lan­guage Krys­tia uses seems inau­then­tic, more the voice of the author than that of a young girl caught up in a cli­mate of fear. Krystia’s dis­pas­sion­ate tone in con­sid­er­ing ques­tions of guilt and inno­cence makes her seem more of a sym­bol than a nuanced portrayal.

Skrypuch’s Author’s Note” is a reveal­ing tes­ta­ment to both the seri­ous­ness of her goal and the con­tra­dic­tions which she could not include in her project. She metic­u­lous­ly explains which char­ac­ters are based on real peo­ple, as well as when and why she chose to alter facts in order to cre­ate a cohe­sive work of fic­tion. The Gali­cian town in the nov­el is called Viteretz, but its actu­al mod­el is Pid­hayt­si, whose large pre-war Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was even­tu­al­ly liq­ui­dat­ed. Skyr­puch pro­vides valu­able spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion about the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion which pre­ced­ed the 1941 Nazi inva­sion, and refers to the Ukrain­ian nation­al­ist move­ment which fought for an inde­pen­dent repub­lic free of for­eign con­trol. She doc­u­ments the Nazi plan for exter­mi­na­tion of all Jews and informs read­ers that Ukraini­ans hid Jews and were lat­er hon­ored for their brav­ery. There is no men­tion of the fact that col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nazis in mur­der­ing Jews char­ac­ter­ized vir­tu­al­ly all of occu­pied Ukraine. This his­to­ry, eas­i­ly acces­si­ble at the web­site of Yivo and the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um as well as in many books, actu­al­ly ren­ders the Siko­rs­ka family’s adher­ence to an uncom­pro­mis­ing moral code even more impres­sive. Their sto­ry needs to be told in all its complexity.

Don’t Tell the Nazis is rec­om­mend­ed for read­ers ages ten and old­er. Par­ents and edu­ca­tors should be pre­pared to intro­duce oth­er his­tor­i­cal sources to clar­i­fy the novel’s events.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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