Holocaust memoirs are hard to read. Given the unfathomable brutality of this history, to hear a first-hand account of the Nazis’ atrocities can be overwhelming. However, Mala Kacenberg’s story, Mala’s Cat (Penguin Michael Joseph, £14.99), about her survival as a Jewish teenager is simply astounding. The events that she lived through are harrowing, but Kacenberg’s telling of how she constantly evaded death, along with her cat, is both striking and important.
We follow Mala Szorer, a twelve-year-old Jewish girl from Tarnogród, Poland, who grew up happily in her family home. Her joyful childhood is interrupted by German invasion, and Mala watches as her hometown quickly turns into a ghetto. To help her starving family, she takes the risk of removing her yellow star to go out and beg for food in neighbouring towns. But when she comes back to find the Germans about to execute every Jewish person in the town, she must run away and fight for survival.
Anxiety seeps through these pages. With only her cat Malach, which is Yiddish for ‘angel’, Mala must continually think about how to stay alive. She cannot remain in one place too long for fear of suspicion or discovery. She cannot freeze or starve to death in the woods, nor can she trust anyone to help her. She must escape the country, outwit the Gestapo, and live a lie in order to survive.
Nevertheless, Mala’s courage is what shines through. Despite the trauma she endures – witnessing the murders of her family, the extermination of her people, and living for years under incessant threat of her truth being discovered – Mala has incredible amounts of strength. She never fails to help and care for others despite her own condition. With each narrow avoidance of danger, she thanks Hashem (the Hebrew term for God) for those who help her in return and for her luck throughout her journey.
Mala especially expresses gratitude for Malach, her extraordinary cat who often saves her from loneliness and gives her ‘clues’ on how to get by. I think the title of the memoir is somewhat misleading – this is certainly Mala’s story, not her cat’s. Malach often feels like an afterthought. I wonder whether she is real or imaginary, considering her unbelievable ability to accompany Mala at all times despite her journeying several miles on foot and by train across borders. Perhaps the title, then, shows how Mala’s cat is a symbol of her persistent survival. However, I do not doubt that any other aspect of Kacenberg’s story is ‘fanciful’, in her words – even if her account seems beyond belief, she makes an extremely valid point:
‘Why was I made fearless? Why was I given…the strength to withstand all the suffering? Why had I survived? But others had survived and experienced miracles. Anyone who survived the Holocaust survived with miracles.’ (p. 264)
Kacenberg survived, but not without mental scars unable to be healed. In the preface, she details how she suffered countless sleepless nights, dreaming of her family in Tarnogród, the home she can never return to.
‘The passage of time since those dreadful days does not blur the images of the depths to which humanity can sink…The appalling conditions that my people endured and the “civilised” world’s silence in the face of such evil stick in my mind’ (pp. xi-xiii)
Thus, Kacenberg chose to record everything that she lived through, so that we never forget the horrors of the Holocaust. Her prose is not emotional; indeed, it is mostly focused on the narrative so that we get a sense of Mala’s restlessness. That is not to say that the contents of the memoir are not emotional – they are devastating, but Kacenberg’s writing is detached from any in-depth poignancy. In a way, this suits the cold cruelty of the violence that she witnesses, and I assume that a lot of the mental trauma is indescribable. This is not fiction with a tortured protagonist – this was Kacenberg’s life, and only one life out of millions that experienced similar hardships.
At the end of the book there are pictures of Kacenberg, her husband, and parents. It truly sets in stone the reality of these events. It reminds us that behind the statistics – the ‘six million Jewish martyrs’ on the memorial page – are individual stories that never got to be told. It also reminds us that the same applies to today’s wars. As we see the decimated buildings and death tolls on our screens, we cannot forget that every person who lives through war has their own complex narrative with its own ‘miracles’ and tragedies. Therefore, in remembrance of both the Holocaust and the inhumanity of war, Mala’s Cat by Mala Kacenberg (Penguin Michael Joseph, £14.99) is a pertinent and powerful read.
Mala's Cat is published by Penguin Michael Joseph and is available to purchase here.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor