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 régime. 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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.