Mala’s Cat is the true story of an observant young Jewish girl’s improbable survival during World War II.
Mala Kacenberg (née Szorer) opens her memoir by informing readers that the three of her nine siblings who died during infancy before the war were the lucky ones. She describes a normal life and happy childhood in prewar Poland near a deep forest. When she is twelve years old, the Germans brutally occupy her village of Tarnogród, and Mala narrowly escapes an attack that kills her brother. Nevertheless, she is recorded as dead, which allows her to help provide food and provisions for her starving family. With this mission, Mala removes her gold star and ventures into the forest.
Kacenberg chronicles her astonishing creativity and quick thinking in matter-of-fact, unsentimental language. Mala remains resourceful and courageous as atrocities mount, including the mass deportation and murder of her family along with all the Jews of Tarnogród. A polyglot with a talent for acting, Mala pretends to be a Polish Catholic girl as she makes her way from town to town and eventually into Germany posing as a Christian slave laborer. Even when on rare occasions she senses kindness in people, Mala cannot trust anyone with her true identity until the end of the war. Without slowing the book’s quick pace, Kacenberg shares moments of loneliness and hope and ponders her own will to survive in the face of terror.
Young Mala is perceptive to threats everywhere: former schoolmates and their families, the suspicion of a would-be-rescuer’s neighbors, a fellow laborer’s jealousy, a Polish suitor. Though Mala is clever and competent as no child should ever have to be, that she is continually able to outwit and elude Nazi soldiers, officers, and collaborators is nothing short of miraculous. Despite the book’s title and the author’s appreciation of her companion, the cat who is frequently at Mala’s side does not feature prominently in the action. Mala names the cat Malach, “angel” in Hebrew, and indeed the story is full of what must be divine intervention.
The book continues after the German defeat as Mala, by then an older teenager, returns to Poland escaping postwar perils and making her way through shelters. She carries the burdens of her trauma and grief and begins to transition from wartime survival into society when she moves to the UK and back into a Jewish community. Kacenberg’s detailed continuation of her story in the postwar period is one of this book’s many praiseworthy contributions within the genre of Holocaust memoir.
There will always be more to learn and remember from some of humanity’s darkest hours, but in 2022 it is increasingly unusual to discover a newly published Holocaust memoir. It is rarer still to encounter first-hand stories of survival in the eastern forests and hiding in plain sight, let alone in a voice that surprises. Woven together from diaries and scraps of Kacenberg’s writing and published posthumously, readers are blessed with just such a memoir in the profoundly moving Mala’s Cat.
Lindsey Bodner is a writer and an education foundation director. She lives in Manhattan with her family.