A scrapbook-style array of photos of Mala Kacenberg, author of Holocaust memoir Mala’s Cart
A scrapbook-style array of photos of Mala Kacenberg, author of Holocaust memoir Mala’s Cart

Early in the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah, 1942, my father was saying Selichos – the prayers of repentance which are recited daily during the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. I was preparing to sneak out of the house in order to beg for food to sustain us over the High Holy Days. We needed food for two days, and we needed time to cook it before Yom Tov. I was determined to be home before sunset, and I secretly asked Hashem to help me in my difficult task.

With a very heavy heart, I embraced each one of my family and asked them not to worry about me. I did not then realise that they would never need my provisions again, that these were the last few hours of their lives.

I left the town, with Malach at my side as usual, and I passed many soldiers on the way. As usual, none of them paid any attention to me whatsoever, and I continued walking. When I was some distance away, I noticed troops encircling Tarnogrod. I had no idea what they were planning to do. Reluctantly, I continued towards Korchow, a village I had visited several times before.

I was quite successful that day. I managed to get a fair number of potatoes, some pieces of bread and eggs. I had so much food that I afforded myself the luxury of tasting some of it, thus gaining strength which I would soon need. With the heavy sack on my shoulder, Malach and I set out on the journey back to Tarnogrod, hoping to get home in time for my mother to prepare a cooked meal for us before Rosh Hashanah started.

From afar, I could see a figure walking toward me, coming nearer and nearer. Soon I recognised Mr Guziek, our nice Christian neighbour. When he came near me, he quietly told me that my parents and my sisters, along with many other young people, had been rounded up and taken to the marketplace. They had been informed that they would go to a much better place where the men would get good jobs, and their families would receive larger rations.

My parents had given my personal belongings to Mr Guziek to pass on to me before I joined them. He handed me a hot drink from a flask, and I drank some. It greatly refreshed me. He also had a note for me from Balla, which he said was important for me to read. I was too stunned and had to put the note away in my pocket, unable to read it in that state of shock. I collected my belongings from Mr Guziek’s house and thanked him for his kindness, telling him that I fully realised that he had risked his life in meeting me. We met people on the way who believed I was his daughter.

Then I made my way back home. The house was now empty except for my old grandfather who was too weak to walk and had been left behind. The Nazis knew that without help he would soon starve and die. He was very confused and had no idea of what really happened. He wanted to know when everyone would be back. I gave him some food and told him that I was going to find out and come back to look after him. Being too old and too weak by now to comprehend the situation, he allowed my words to allay his fears and gave me his blessing as usual.

I left my bundle of clothes at home and went to the marketplace. I could see that there was a huge pile of personal belongings in the middle of the street. Cautiously, I approached and noticed my sister Balla intimating to me that I shouldn’t come any nearer. She was clever and must have realised the end was near.

I struggled with my conscience, thinking I should throw in my lot with my family, knowing quite well that I would never see my loved ones again. But I could not make myself join the group.

With powerful feelings of guilt overwhelming me, I turned around and ran home to read the note Balla had left with Mr Guziek. I was afraid to read it outside in case someone saw me. I quickly entered the house and looked around. Everything was surprisingly tidy. My family must have believed that they would return. Then I read Balla’s letter.

Dearest Mala,

We do not know what the future holds for us, but whatever it is, Mummy and Daddy pray for a better fate for you. The Germans say they will take us to a place called Izbice, where they say Daddy will have work, and we will get double rations. Although I wish you were with us, I have a premonition that it is best for you not to join us. You are strong and clever and will have a better chance of survival on your own. For in spite of the Germans’ promises, we know we are doomed. Look after Grandfather for us and, as a last resort, try to go to Luchow Dolny to stay with Uncle Abram and Auntie Goldie. Be brave and may Hashem bless you. Remember, we all love you.

Balla

‘I love you, too,’ I said aloud. There was no one near to hear me except my cat.

I felt desolate and completely forlorn. Disbelief engulfed my whole body. I closed my eyes and imagined that I too was among my dear ones. I stood motionless for quite a while and began to pray. ‘Please, Hashem, don’t let them suffer too much.’

I stayed in the house for a few days, unable to muster up the energy to move. One day, glancing quickly out of the window, I saw that the street was deserted. Those Jews who remained behind in the ghetto were stunned by the round-up and quite afraid to venture outside.

I felt a great sense of duty towards my grandfather, but I was sure to be arrested if I stayed with him much longer. I was a ‘wanted person’, after all. Wanted for what? I wondered. I knew I had not committed any crimes for which I deserved to be arrested. It was those German barbarians who were guilty of the most heinous crimes possible and I secretly devised a plan as to how I would punish them if I were the judge but soon realised how foolish I was. There was a bigger Judge, and I had to leave it to Him, I decided.

I prepared some food for my grandfather and kissed him goodbye. I knew in my heart it would be a long time before I would see him again – perhaps forever.

‘I will be back very soon, Zeidy dear,’ I said to him. ‘Please do not worry about me as I am quite capable of looking after myself.’

I was sure that soon other people would occupy our house and would help him. I hated having to forsake my grandfather, but I was now powerless to help him, as it was too dangerous for me to be with other Jews.

With that thought, I suddenly stopped feeling like a child. If I were to survive, I would have to behave like a grown-up and fend for myself. Turning to my cat, I said, ‘Come along, it’s time to leave,’ and I set off with a small bundle over one shoulder, destination as yet undecided. ‘I have plenty of time to think about that,’ I said to myself. ‘The only obligation I now have is to find a way of surviving in the big, wide world that Hashem created for all of us, not just for the Germans.’

There being no choice, I decided to live in the fields forever. ‘If you can do it,’ I said to Malach, ‘then so can I. And from now on, I am going to compete with you, my dear friend.’

I resolved then and there that I was too young to die and made my way into the woods. The sky and the fields all around me looked beautiful, and that gave me inspiration to live.

‘Goodbye, childhood,’ I said. And though I was only a short, little girl, I resolved to walk tall, to freedom, to life. ‘If I am to survive, I have to start believing that I am very big, and become completely independent, like the animals in the wilds.’

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

  • Mala's Cat

  • 'A remarkable tale of survival, in which Jewish life in pre-war Poland and the atrocities of the Holocaust appear through an almost dreamlike lens of childhood memory' Jeremy Dronfield, bestselling author of The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz

    'Mala's Cat is fresh, unsentimental and utterly unpredictable... This memoir, rescued from obscurity by the efforts of Mala Kacenberg's five children, should be read and cherished as a new, vital document of a history that must never be allowed to vanish' Julie Orringer for the New York Times

    'It's an account of astounding courage and resourcefulness . . . The real miracle here is the vitality of Kacenberg's faith and determination' Mail on Sunday
    __________

    Alone in a forest with only a cat for company - this is the deeply moving true story of one little girl's remarkable survival in the shadow of the Holocaust

    Growing up in the Polish village of Tarnogrod, on the fringes of a deep pine forest, Mala has the happiest childhood anyone could hope for.

    But, when the Nazis invade, her beloved village becomes a ghetto and family and friends are reduced to starvation. Taking matters into her own hands, she bravely removes her yellow star, and sneaks out to the surrounding villages for food.

    On her way back she receives a smuggled letter from her sister warning her to stay away: her loved ones have been rounded up for deportation. With only her cat, Malach, and the strength of the stories taught by her family, she must flee into the forest.

    Malach becomes her family, her only respite from loneliness, a guide and reminder to stay hopeful even in the darkness.

    With her guardian angel by her side, Mala must find a way to navigate the dangerous forests, outwit German soldiers and hostile villagers, to survive, against all the odds.
    __________

    'It's an account of astounding courage and resourcefulness . . . The real miracle here is the vitality of Kacenberg's faith and determination' Mail on Sunday

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