Into the Forest is a nonfiction book about the Rabinowitz family living in Zhetel, in what is now Belarus. It’s an astonishing tale of hardship, survival, and, in the end, love.
A chance meeting at a weeding puts a young man on a path to find the woman who saved him from being shipped off to a camp and killed.
There is a brief introduction in the first few chapters about the family – how they landed in Zhetel, what their businesses were, what their houses looked like, and so on. Normally, this would be well less than interesting, an infodump that the author did not weave into the narrative, but it works here, as the immersion into that time and that place are both necessary and fascinating.
The woods of the title refers to the large forested area in the vicinity. As WWII begins, and Nazi troops begin pouring through the country, first depriving Jews of their rights and then of their lives, the Rabinowitz family escapes the ghetto and hides in the forest for an amazing two years. They dig dugout shelters and disguise them to hide from Nazi (and their collaborators) due to raids. There is never enough food during the years, and never enough heat in the harsh winters. Disease runs rampant, and the family is forced to relocate their shelter when the smallish community of those hiding in the woods is found by the Nazis.
Throughout it all, the family stays together, occasionally making contact with friendly farmers in the area – people the Rabinowitz family knew to be sympathetic to their plight even before the Jews were rounded up in the area.
Eventually, WWI ends, and the family, along with other survivors, heads over another dangerous pass, this time to sneak into Italy as a step of making their way to what is now Israel. They ultimately give up on that idea and head to America instead.
It’s a fantastic story, well told, and I loved it. Highly recommended.
Five out of five stars.
Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.