Gertru­da’s Oath

Ram Oren; Bar­bara Har­shav, trans.
  • Review
By – September 9, 2011

Incred­i­ble’ doesn’t even begin to describe this non­fic­tion tale, which deals with the Holo­caust and the found­ing of the State of Israel. In the open­ing chap­ter, we’re intro­duced to Michael Stolow­itzky and his adop­tive moth­er, Gertru­da Babilin­s­ka, liv­ing in Israel in the 1950’s. The nar­ra­tive then shifts back to the 1930’s, where Gertru­da, a Pol­ish Catholic teacher, is hired as a nan­ny for Michael, a tiny Jew­ish child of an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly rich fam­i­ly. As Ger­many invades Poland, unleash­ing events that remove him from the care of his par­ents and the safe­ty of his home, Gertru­da comes to be Michael’s lone pro­tecter. It’s a role she will con­tin­ue to play at great risk through Poland, Lithua­nia, and oth­er nations. 

The book reads like a nov­el — it’s fast­paced, heavy on vio­lent con­fronta­tions, and col­ored with an array of sup­port­ing char­ac­ters, includ­ing a sym­pa­thet­ic SS offi­cer, Karl Rink, who is the hus­band of a Jew­ish woman. One could com­plain about cer­tain ele­ments— the author’s knowl­edge of World War II his­to­ry is a lit­tle weak (the Sovi­et Union, for instance, also invad­ed Poland in 1939) and some of the sen­tences spo­ken by the very young sound con­trived. Still, there’s no get­ting around what an astound­ing sto­ry this is. In the spir­it of Gone With the Wind, this is a true tale of peo­ple caught up in the pul­ver­iz­ing sweep of his­to­ry, as well as of sur­vival under the most try­ing cir­cum­stances imaginable.

David Cohen is a senior edi­tor at Politi­co. He has been in the jour­nal­ism busi­ness since 1985 and wrote the book Rugged and Endur­ing: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Foot­ball. He resides in Rockville, MD.; his wife, Deb­o­rah Bod­in Cohen, writes Jew­ish children’s books.

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