Gertruda's Oath: A Child, a Promise and a Heroic Escape During World War II
By Ram Oren
Using a fictional framework to explore personal history can yield unexpected rewards. The form allows the writer the freedom to fill in detail that may be lacking from a failing memory; it gives individual stories the opportunity to humanize historical fact. That said, this narrative device brings with it its own challenges; if the underpinning factual landscape is one as well-known and as anthologized as the Holocaust, does the individual's story run the risk of being overwhelmed beneath the wealth of detail already known to the reader?
It's a chance that Ram Oren takes with Gertruda's Oath - A Child, a Promise and a Heroic Escape During World War II. In his preface, Oren - the popular Israeli author of suspense thrillers, including the translated Mark of Cain - explains that his decision to do so was, in a sense, unavoidable, given that his narrative was composed partially on the back of recollections from principal characters who had since passed away. Still, he continues, "[This story], and the story of all those affected by the Holocaust, is poignant history, and is here told as close to fact as possible."
It is 1939. Michael Stolowitzky is three years old, the only child of a wealthy Jewish family in Warsaw. While the family is not completely insulated from intimations of what is to come, the violent facts that accompanied Hitler's rise to power across the border do seem remote. Michael is cared for by his nanny, a Catholic woman called Gertruda Bablinska. Her devotion to the child is absolute, despite her initial reservations about working for a Jewish family. She asks her priest for advice, and he reminds her that there will always be good people and bad people, Christians as well as Jews: "The most important thing is that they're good people, who will love you and whom you will love." With time, Michael becomes inseparable from Gertruda, and she in turn becomes a valued member of the family.
What follows is at first predictable. When the Nazis invade Poland in the autumn of 1939, the family is split. Michael's father is trapped in Paris, where he had traveled to try to rescue what remained of his ailing business. Michael and his mother, accompanied by Gertruda, are forced to flee for their lives before the advancing German armies, to the Vilna Ghetto in present-day Lithuania.
There, amid the desperate circumstances faced by the refugees, Michael's mother - always of a delicate disposition - takes seriously ill with a heart complaint. On her deathbed, her only thought is for her son's welfare. She asks Gertruda to look after Michael. The nanny agrees without a second thought: "I'll take care of him as if he were my own son." She promises, when the war ends, to take the boy to distant relatives who live in Palestine.
Oren - as one might expect from a thriller writer - is an efficient rather than lyrical narrator, and his economical prose is shorn of overelaborate sentiment. This, oddly enough, does not always work for the best; the first half the book reads at times like a series of terse reports from a world about to topple over the edge. But gradually, the humanity of his characters softens the hard edges, replacing it with a tender and touching account of genuine, selfless generosity.
Gertruda's task - a Polish Catholic woman protecting a small Jewish child against the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against them - would in all probability have been an impossible one without the fortuity that the lottery of life throws up occasionally. When Michael falls ill, a doctor from the ghetto risks his life to minister to him; later, a Nazi called Rink - a man with an improbable family history of his own given his position - rescues them both from what would have surely been their end when a suspicious colleague demands that the young Michael remove his trousers and, inevitably, reveal his ancestry. From these vignettes one teases out a recurring theme of selfless sacrifice: Even amid the madness of the war and the Holocaust, there remained people who did what they believed to be right - even at great risk to themselves.
The story of Gertruda's and Michael's epic journey to Palestine is but that of two individuals, a footnote to history. Still, it is from footnotes like this that one begins to understand the true course of history, history as experienced by the people who lived through it. It is a point that one fully appreciates toward the end of the book: The war has ended, and Gertruda and Michael are seeking passage to Palestine - on the Exodus, no less. While sympathetic to her cause, the Aliya Bet committee was not particularly inclined toward giving a Catholic woman passage, nanny - and savior - to a Jewish child or not.
But one member of the committee, a "short, thin, high-strung young man" called Mordechai Rozman, refused to allow them to jettison her. "Everyone who saves one soul, it is as if he saved the whole world," he reminded them. "That woman gave up her life so the child would live. There's no greater sacrifice than that."
And, eventually, the committee relents and lets her go with Michael, to Palestine and to fulfill her solemn oath.