Books: On the road

First-time novelist Gavriel Savit draws a haunting tale of a seven-year-old girl fleeing the Nazis.

Forest (illustrative). (photo credit: Courtesy)
Forest (illustrative).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Considering the horrible premise of this novel, I should have been frantic with worry throughout the book about Anna’s safety. After all, we fathers of three daughters have been known to empathize with desperate seven-year-old girls.
In the beginning of Anna and the Swallow Man, Anna’s situation seems hopeless.
After the German Army reaches her hometown of Krakow in Poland, she loses her father – he is picked up by the Nazis and never returns. She becomes homeless and alone before finally attaching herself to a man she meets by accident.
The two flee into the countryside. They continue to walk in the woods and in the fields, homeless, hungry, cold (or hot) and in constant danger of being caught by the “wolves” (Germans) or the “bears” (the Soviets).
Despite this frightening reality, I found myself worrying less about Anna, and instead being fascinated by the ingenuity the two display in trying to stay alive; by the perilous adventures they experience “on the road”; by their developing “father-daughter” relationship; and, perhaps most important, by the insightfulness of first-time author Gavriel Savit.
Girls of Anna’s age, Savit writes, “are a hugely varied bunch. Some of them will tell you that they’ve long since grown up, and you’d have trouble not agreeing with them; others seem to care much more about the hidden childhood secrets chalked on the insides of their heads than they do about telling a grown-up anything at all; and still others (this being the largest group of all) have not entirely decided to which camp they belong...”
At the beginning of their journey, the Swallow Man tries to explain to his charge that they are in constant danger, and even answering to her name could be a catastrophic mistake. He tells her to give him her name – Anna.
“You still get to hold it, but when someone calls it out, or asks you what yours is, you must remember: ‘Anna’ isn’t your name.”
When they’re alone, she can borrow her name, he tells her.
“Now, Anna and her daddy and her home in Krakow and everything? That’s not yours anymore... I promise I’ll keep her safe for you, and you’ll have her in the dark, when we’re alone.”
They almost never carry money with them, Savit writes. Money tends to make people “avaricious” ... dividing them “into buyers and sellers. The Swallow Man wanted to meet a person only if he could make that person a comrade or a friend for the brief duration of their acquaintance, and it is a heavy task for buyers and sellers truly to be friends. The liability of money far outweighed its advantages.”
They travel for a while with Reb Hirschl, whom they meet in the forest, following the German Army into the Soviet Union and then returning to Poland when the Red Army counterattacked.
Their journey takes them to an abandoned Polish noble’s manor house and then to the city of Danzig (Gdansk).
This book will haunt me for a long time, even though it raises many questions such as: Is the story based on real life? Were Anna and/or the Swallow Man Jewish? (The author hints that both may have been.) What – if anything – is the author trying to teach the reader with the story? But, in the words of the Swallow Man, those unanswered questions may be exactly what makes the book so unforgettable.
“A question holds all the potential of the living universe within it. In the same way, a piece of knowledge is inert and infertile.
Questions, Anna – questions are far more valuable than answers, and they do much less blowing up in your face as well. If you continue to seek questions, you cannot stray off the proper road.”
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.