Amidst the Shadows of Trees

Each memoir written by a Holocaust survivor is exceptionally valuable. Each adds to the documentation of the event in its entirety. Each highlights another aspect of the unbelievable but true. Amidst the Shadows of Trees by Miriam Brysk is aptly subtitled, A Holocaust Child’s Survival in the Partisans. For the author recounts how at seven years old, she, her mother, and her father became members of a partisan group operating in the Lipiczany forest, within fifty miles of Lida, Poland. The partisans smuggled the whole family out of the Lida ghetto because her father, Dr. Chaim Miasnik, was “renowned for his surgical skills” and they were in dire need of a doctor. Thus from Miriam’s, or rather as she was then called, Mirele’s vantage point, we read about how, indeed, her father “was constantly sent away on missions to treat wounded partisans in scattered parts of [the] forest.” How “he had no attendant staff to help him, nor a sterile ambient environment in which to operate. He had no medications to ease the pain and prevent infection. All that he could offer the injured was some vodka.” How “the wounds were disinfected with alcohol, which was used to sterilize Then, how, miraculously, her father helped establish a forest hospital, secured by its remoteness and surrounding swamps from the Germans. At the same time, we read about the reality of life with the partisans and how very hard and raw it was. How partisans themselves generally only accepted new members if they came armed. How being a woman alone among them was dangerous. Thus women generally paired off with a man for safety’s sake. How children in a fighting partisan unit were considered a liability. They could cry or scream and cause the death of fighters. There was anti-Semitism among partisans. There were roving hooligans in the forest who caught Jews for German reward. There were the Germans ruthlessly hunting for Jews. Then, too, there was the relentless cold and hunger The childhood years are fundamental and formative. Happily, though, time would bring understanding, solace, and joy. Her father would eventually reopen his practice in America — Brooklyn to be exact — respected and loved by all. Miriam, his daughter, would earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and herself become a respected research scientist, professor, artist, and poet, and write this fine book. Moreover, while she is retired now, one gets the distinct impression that Miriam still has more things she’d like to do. On a personal note, interestingly, within the text the author writes about how when she first met her “American family” — she had uncles here — they “could not empathize with what we had lived through. . . . they failed to grasp what it meant to have survived, to be one of the Holocaust’s living victims. In particular they made ignorant remarks” like “‘you will soon forget the past; we don’t want you to dwell on the war; remember you are now in America.’”

Dr. Diane Cypkin
 – Professor Media, Communication, and Visual Arts Pace University, NY
 Martyrdom & Martyrology, November/December 2011

 
 
The nightmarish cover art taps into familiar archetypes of perverted childhood, lost innocence and danger in the woods – themes reminiscent of such fables as “Hansel and Gretel” – and foreshadows the astounding narrative of how the now 73-year-old Brysk’s survival as a child of the Holocaust. Brysk recollects her story – which reads like an “it can’t-have-actually-happened” work of fiction – from the viewpoint of her always- present childhood mind’s eye. Brysk opens her memoir in Warsaw in 1939 when she was four years old. She describes her feelings of terror and helplessness as she experiences the first of what would become regular bombing raids by the Nazis. Brysk learned her earliest – lessons from her mother: “You must obey all the orders I give you without asking any questions. Do what I tell you.” This strict disciplinary command would become a steely component of her character, as time after time the family was forced into situations where a child’s cry or act of disobedience would result in the murder of the entire family. When Nazi occupation made life dangerous for Warsaw’s Jews, Brysk and her mother fled Warsaw to join Brysk’s father, Dr. Chaim Miasnik, in the Soviet-occupied town of Lida in White Russia. Dr. Miasnik, a noted physician, had taken a position of chief surgeon in a Lida hospital, laying the foundation for his family to join him after Poland fell. The Miasnik family lived in relative safety under the Communist regime in Lida – due in large part to Dr. Miasnik’s stature as a surgeon – until Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Intense bombing raids followed by land invasions of Nazi storm troopers, creation of a Jewish ghetto, and in May 1942 the relentless massacre of Lida’s Jews. Brysk family was saved from the massacre when young Jewish partisan’s led the family out of Lida into the surrounding forest where her father’s surgical skills were needed by wounded partisans. Brysk recollects her feelings of exhilaration as the family joined other Jewish partisans in their new home without walls or barbed wire, and her sense of adventure and empowerment when her father shaved her head, dressed her as a boy and gave her a pistol on her eight birthday. Ultimately, her father established a hospital in the forest, under the auspices of the Soviet high command and the family remained forest occupants until liberation. Brysk has made a valuable contribution to the literature of the Holocaust with this masterful memoir. The acuity of her memory, her deep insight into human psychology and her superb story-telling skills combine to make her story one that reverberates in the mind and heart of the reader long after the book ends.

Marilyn Krainer – Michigan Jewish History, vol. 48, 2008, 64-65

 
 
Not long from now, the last survivors of the Holocaust will have passed on. Our collective memory, those of us who were spared this horror, will become secondhand. This is why Miriam M. Brysk’s book could not have appeared at a more appropriate time. There are three basic narratives in her treatment, each of which sheds penetrating light on various aspects of the Holocaust. First, there is the recollection, the retelling, of the monstrous event through the expert eyes of a child. She expresses understandable irritation when her elders condescendingly chide her that someone so young could not possibly grasp the enormity of this horror. Brysk proves them wrong. The second narrative focuses on the efforts of a condemned people to maintain the normal rhythms of daily life such as the regular games Brysk played with a girl neighbor. “We collected paper labels from bottles and cans, usually extracted from the garbage, and traded them, much like children in America,” she writes. The background against which these games were played was anything but prosaic. And then there is the old theme of alleged passive collaboration of Jews in their own extermination. This argument, most prominently associated with Hannah Arendt, has been refuted on countless occasions. Brysk’s account of how, at age 7, she escaped with her family from the Lida Ghetto and linked up with Jewish and Soviet partisans in the Lipiczany Forest in order to wage partisan war against the Nazis decisively refutes this argument. This is a well-written, emotionally wrenching book and well worth reading.

John Starrels – October 10, 2013

 
 

Although every Holocaust memoir is special in its own way, Amidst the Shadows of Trees was one of the best Holocaust memoirs I have ever read.  The honesty, the willingness to express and share even the most painful memories, is apparent from the start.  In my experience, many accounts are sanitized so as to make the reader view the protagonist in a single and often flattering light.  Although this might make generalizations easy – one book describes a hero, another victim, yet another a lucky survivor – it also fictionalizes the narrative, as no man is forever the embodiment of any of these roles, particularly when faced with the impossible situations with which he is confronted.   In this text, Miriam Brysk does not modify her recollections to garner sympathy or admiration, but instead gives the truth as she remembers it.   By bearing her soul, Brysk provides readers an emotional link and personal connection to the events of the Shoah, a link that becomes more vital each day as the number of survivors dwindles.  Many survivors have kept their stories to themselves or only shared them with their children or grandchildren, but with time these stories will fade.   Without books such as this, in 50 years “the Holocaust” might merely become another chapter in a history book, as distant a memory to a new generation as the Civil War or Ancient Rome.  With her testimony, Brysk ensures that the victims of the Nazi regime will always have a voice and that the world will never forget.

Arielle I Sokol 2013

 
 
Beautifully told and evoking every detail of a child survivor’s experiences of the Shoah, the horrors she witnessed, the losses she experienced, the hardships and heartbreaks she survived, this story is a rare example of a girl who, disguised as a boy, lived with the partisans in the Lipiczany Forest after escaping from the wholesale slaughter of the Lida ghetto inmates. Her authentic testimony, her total recall of every event, every emotion belie the assumption held by some that the testimony of young children cannot be trusted, because they were too young to remember. We are given insights into Miriam’s relationship with her parents, their loving protection during times of incredible hardship, but also their human frailties and failures in the years of exile. Finally the story also covers the postwar, post-Holocaust years and the amazing strength and ambition with which Miriam created her own career and built a loving family relationship in the New World. We are treated to samples of Miriam’s poetry and art in addition to her unique, unforgettable memoir. Surely this book deserves a place among the many Holocaust accounts on your library shelf.

Susanne M. Batzdorff – Librarian Retired, Celia Gurevitch Library, Congregation Beth Ami, Santa Rosa, CA.

 
 
In this brief memoir, Miriam Brysk takes us from her birth in Warsaw in 1935 through the terrors of trying to survive on the run, beginning with the German invasion of Warsaw and her family’s escape to Lida in eastern Poland, then occupied by the Soviets. The Nazis soon marched into Lida, first herding the Jews into a ghettoand by May 1942 rounding them to be shot. . “They came like butchers lusting for blood… They hit us with metal pipes and with the butts of their guns to force us to run faster. ”The family was marked for “selection” when a Nazi officer recognized Dr. Chaim Miasnik, Miriam’s father, and pulled him out of the line—the Germans had need of doctors, even Jewish ones. So did the Partisans in the nearby Lipiczany Forest; they kidnapped Dr. Miasnik, who refused to go unless his wife and daughter went with him. They spent the next three years running and hiding from German patrols through dense forest and swampland. Meanwhile, Dr. Miasnik was often called away to operate on the wounded who couldn’t be moved and was forced to leave his wife and daughter behind, though not before he shaved Miriam’s head and dressed her in boy’s clothes to try to protect her against rape. Each day had its unique terrors. One night mother and daughter were hiding with others in a pit near a large spruce tree. “Suddenly, we heard noises in the distance,” Brysk writes; “then we heard men speaking German Mama held me tightly, my head buried in her chest.” Call it good fortune: the Germans did not bring dogs to sniff them out and there was no moon to give them away. At war’s end, the Soviets awarded Dr. Miasnik the Order of Lenin for saving so many lives. Though the family made its way to Belarus, life under the Soviets held little promise. Thus began new dangers as they made their way, without papers, across one European border after another, eventually reaching Italy and immigrating to the US in 1947. The harrowing years in the Lipiczany Forest is the major narrative; the under text. At twenty, Miriam married Henry Brysk, an academic, and eventually went on herself to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University in bacterial physiology, later becoming professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Despite her achievements, Brysk suffered through “bouts of depression, feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, and anxiety from years of being thought of as stupid.” Only years of hard therapy enabled her to recover. Retiring in 2000 her professorship of dermatology, she began pursuing the life of an artist. Miriam Brysk’s stories of life in the forest are riveting—they give us glimpses into the astonishing resilience of which a seemingly ordinary child is capable in her will, against all odds, to survive and carry on.

Merrill Leffler 2013 – Jewish Book Council

 
 

This book is a profoundly moving and personal true account of my mother’s experience during World War II in the ghetto and in an Underground unit in the forests. Reading this book takes you right into her experience with a depth and raw honesty that addresses the historical context of this time of such terrible inhumanity, but goes so much deeper into what is most personal and individually experienced and into touching the heart and soul of the reader and humanity. You cannot read this book and not be affected by it. My mother is one of my most important sheroes.

Havi Mandell 2013

 
 

This powerful book is a must read for those who grew up in the U.S. after the 1950s or ’60s the history of WW II is in the past, and filled with huge numbers of victims of Nazi onslaught, particularly the number of people killed, or imprisoned. Little is remembered about those who valiantly fought, and survived. Here is a book which describes the lives of people who endured this terrible time, not only by banding together, but as individuals whose daily lives are a testament to the human spirit. In the author’s life we see the utmost example of the human spirit, demonstrated from terrifying childhood to fully realized adult. This book is so compelling that it is hard to put down once you start reading .In today’s world it is imperative to realize the realities of war and recognize it not only in political terms, but what it does in personal terms to the lives of ordinary people, and how important it is to do all we can to prevent it.

Roberta Goldberg 2013

 
 
Amidst the Shadows of Trees: A Holocaust Child’s Survival in the Partisans is a unique and deeply moving story of a childhood lived in peril that ranges from the urban ghetto of Lida to the virgin forests of Belarus. This beautifully written book illuminates author Miriam Brysk’s harrowing experiences–in Lida, where she was selected to die before the community’s need for her father’s services as a doctor spared her; in the forests of Belarus alongside Jewish partisans who, also needing a doctor, had entered the ghetto to take her family away; as a child living with the constant fear of abandonment, of being separated from her parents, of death. Even among the partisans, mortal danger is always at hand. There is the threat of rape, leading her parents to shave her head and dress her as a boy to protect her. There is terrible cold, inadequate shelter, insufficient food, and the never-ending possibility of being found by Germans or the collaborators who hunted Jews. As a child holocaust survivor myself, I highly recommend Miriam Brysk’s book–it keeps the memory alive.

Maria B. Orlowski 2013

 
 
Amidst the Shadows of Trees: A Holocaust Child’s Survival in the Partisans is a heartbreaking tale of lost innocence. This is a well written book that takes us all the way through the life of a child survivor of the Holocaust. It was heartbreaking to hear of all the thinks this child had to suffer: the loss of family members, the loss of friends, the hunger, the misery and the fear. I just don’t understand the hate that could cause such horror. One of the things that surprised me most was how some of their fellow Jews treated them poorly after the war. It seems there is no end to evil in the hearts of men. However, the story also shows the good in many people and the resilience of the human spirit. It makes me so happy to see the photos of Miriam’s offspring and realize that they would not be here is she hadn’t survived, yet so sad to see photos of her family that lost their lives. Overall this was a story that should be told.

Ruth Flores 2013

 
 
This is not just a story about a Jewish girl going through the Holocaust, but it is a touching recount of her growing up and her interaction with her father during these difficult times. She brings you on a journey of her life from her early struggles being a Jew, but she tells us where she is now in her life and how she got there. This is one of the best books I have read recently!

Carol Lawson

 
 
This is one of the best l have ever read. Absolutely wonderful account…..a must read!!
I think this memoir will stay with me for a long time. I have a nine year old grandchild and I have thought repeatedly would….could we have survived this…….so pleased to see in the end how life became. such a wonderful thing for many……family was a allowed to” This memory is one of the best accounts I have ever read. As a gun became a gift for an eight year old I was you he’d o y how life is so different now. I have a.one year old grandson.

Joan Beck 2014

 
 
She was a child when her father, a doctor, was removed by stealth from Lida ghetto to help with the medical needs of partisans in the thick forests of Belarus during WWII. As she wrote her memories they seemed to increase from the parked corner where she kept them, with ever more vivid accounts as the memoir proceeded. Fascinating read for anyone asking the deeper question of the impact of WWII on the memories and lives of the precious few children who came thru the sustained terror but were still old enough to have memories.

Elaine M. Silverman 2013

 
 
Spellbinding. Could not put it down, read through the night…..Author is a fantastic writer and her survival story is unique. I recommend it to everyone. This story must be told before the last survivors disappear and we must hear it!

Nelly Ullman 2013

 
 

A Different Perspective. Just when I think I have a good understanding of the Holocaust, a book gives a totally new perspective on this tragic period in Holocaust history. For a child to experience what is described in this book is unbelievable. Never have I read a more graphic epic from the eyes of a child. Miriam’s tale is one of heroic proportions and an example of the strength of the human spirit.

Janeta Stamper 2014

 
 
Amazing! This is one of the best l have ever read, absolutely wonderful account…..a must read!!
I think this memoir will stay with me for a long time. I have a nine year old grandchild and I have thought repeatedly would….could we have survived this This memoir is one of the best accounts I have ever read.

Joan Beck March 21, 2014