Book Review

Jews In The Garden By Judy Rakowsky

Jews in the Garden: A Holocaust Survivor, the Fate of His Family, and the Secret History of Poland in World War II

  • Author: Judy Rakowsky
  • Genre: History/War
  • Publication Date: July 11, 2023
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks

Thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: Holocaust imagery, genocide, blood, gun violence, antisemitism, violence, grief

Villages of Poland hide the lost secrets of World War II.

1944: Heavy footfalls thud on the road on a rainy May night. A band of gunmen scour a hilltop farm, acting on rumors that it harbors a Jewish family. For 18 months, the Rozeneks have been hiding safely, but their luck is about to run out. Only one from the family of six will live to see the sunrise. Sixteen-year-old Hena Rozenek shelters in the woods until morning… and then she runs.

Forty years later: Holocaust survivor Sam Rakowski Ron has lived in the United States for decades, never thinking he could return to the Polish village he fled as a teenager. But now he’s ready to talk about what he heard, what he saw, and what he knows about two separate families of cousins who were his neighbors, and presumably were killed during the war. The story Poland presents to the world is that Poles saved more Jews than citizens of any other nation, that any murders in Poland were committed by Nazis and Nazis alone. But Sam, while defending his countrymen, suspects a painful truth. The stories he shares with his younger cousin, Judy, an investigative journalist, send them off on a decades-long journey unlike any other to find out what happened to the Rozenek family and ultimately reveal the secrets the Polish government is still desperate to keep.

Jews in the Garden is a globe-trotting detective story that turns investigative eyes and ears toward the hidden events in Poland during the Holocaust. Judy and Sam, the unlikeliest of sleuthing duos, knock on doors, petition court documents, seek clandestine meetings, and ultimately discover what really happened to the “Jews in the garden next door.”

I couldn’t help but request this book, since the author’s cousin’s experience so closely resembled that of my father’s. Both Holocaust survivors who were in hiding in Poland, I was curious to see how the author would handle the issue of addressing the role that Poland played in the events of the Holocaust, which is a touchy topic especially in Poland, where it’s illegal to say that Poland collaborated in any way with the Nazis. 

It was especially difficult for me to separate out my own feelings with regard to my father’s experiences from the story in this book. I grew up knowing that antisemitism was virulently present in Poland well before WWII started, and I vividly remember my father telling me that when they were in hiding, they often saw other Jews who had trusted the wrong Polish neighbors get sold out to the Nazis. He also explained that the Germans relied on the Polish gentiles to identify their Jewish friends and neighbors, which they had no compunctions doing. 

However, this story veers into different territory. Sam, a Holocaust survivor, bring Judy, a younger cousin, back to Poland with him on multiple visits. He’s happy to go back, and easily identifies himself as a Polish Jew returning back home. But Poland has changed how they view Jews, and the relationship between gentiles and Jews has changed over the years:

“He still saw himself as a Pole even though his nation had distanced itself from “Poles of Jewish nationality,” the official term for Polish Jews.”

Asking about the whereabouts of his family members who were murdered leads to the people in the homes showing them mass burial sites in the gardens of the home. This occurs in multiple locations, and the fact that these murders were committed by Polish partisans acting on their own, not in concert with Germans, was widespread knowledge. The families knew that hiding Jewish people was the right thing to do, even though they received ostracism and abuse from the other people in the community for multiple generations. But when they ask about one family member who survived, they are blocked at every turn, and no one seems to know anything about it.

While I was caught up in the mystery of what happened to Hena, I was also intrigued by the relationship growing between Judy and Sam. I could see a lot of my father’s personality traits in Sam, and also a lot of the PTSD that my father struggled with. In addition, I was especially interested in the dynamics at play in how antisemitism changes and shifted over the years in Poland. How and why the legislation protecting Poland and its people for playing any sort of role in the atrocities of the Holocaust came about was also interesting, and it is multifactorial. Rakowsky goes through multiple explanations about this, exploring how people were so easily turned against their friends and neighbors, becoming violent and murderous to such a tiny minority in their midst. 

Lately, there are a plethora of Holocaust fiction books available. In the vast majority of these that I’ve seen, they most commonly involve righteous gentiles saving Jews, and that’s the narrative that the Polish government pushes as well. In fact, using the population numbers and the number of righteous gentiles honored by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, the actual percentage of righteous gentiles in Poland works out to be 0.02% of the population. 

“In particular, the government insists that it was the norm during the war for Poles to rescue Jews. But if that were the case, if so many had been righteous gentiles saving Jews why do the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the brave rescuers we met still have to endure anger and abuse from their neighbors and communities?”

This book isn’t so much a Holocaust biography as the case study of one family trying to discover what happened to various branches and tracking down one lost member, and trying to figure out how they fit into the history of Poland, where there family had deep roots and tragic ends. It’s the kind of book that hooked me quickly, and I flew through it, finding myself way more emotionally invested that I had expected to be. I’m glad that I read this, and while it is a tough read, it was well worth it, and a great addition to my Jewish Heritage Month reading.

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