The True Story of Hansel and Gretel
The True Story of Hansel and Gretal In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed "Hansel" and "Gretel." They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called "witch" by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, Louise Murphy’s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children. The True Story of Hansel and Gretal tells a resonant, riveting story.
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This story is based on the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm. Consider what you know about the tale: the characters, the plot, the antagonist, and the moral or lesson of the story prior to reading this counterpart of the tale. Below is a link to the tale for a refresher. (This annotation contains a link)
Once Upon a Time
All of the following details from the text imply the stepmother in this tale is wicked except
Hansel and Gretel
As you read the description of Hansel deciding to throw away the bread, note how many survival skills their stepmother taught them: saving a piece of bread, your bread was your bread, collecting crumbs to make a meal. Do you believe that she is similar to the original stepmother in the Grimm tale?
Below is an image of A map of Poland from WWII. There a couple of important details to note: Poland is situated between Germany and Russia. The story is set during the final year and a half of the war. (This annotation contains an image)
The highlighted description indicates all of the following about Gretel's former life except
The woman believes that Hansel "could almost be one of the Rom." Rom is the masculine form that refers to the Romani people or more commonly known as gypsies. During WWII, the gypsies were one of the first groups eliminated by the Nazis. Gypsies were often not trusted because they were nomadic and essentially homeless. The video below explains the origins of the Romany people in Europe. (This annotation contains a video)
Magda the Witch is an example of a(n) ___________ to the original Brothers Grimm fairytale.
The structure of the text follows two parallel plots. View the video below for a complete definition of parallel plot. As you read consider the juxtaposition of the characters in each plot with the allusions to the original version. Use the contrast between the characters to help you characterize their personas, identify conflict, create and build suspense, and predict future events. (This annotation contains a video)
Upon meeting the group of partisans, the leader warns the couple, "The Nazis don't have to kill you now. Winter is the Nazi in this forest." What does this metaphor imply?
Unlike the stepmother in the fairytale, the stepmother in this text is not self-centered. She abandons the children to insure they all have a better chance of survival. This is evident when they meet the group of partisans, who do not want her husband to join them because "he's too weak." They would have never allowed the children to join the group and may have even harmed the entire family to prevent from being discovered by the Nazis.
Although it seems crass, when the men allow (almost insist) for the stepmother urinate with them, it is symbolic of what?
Brother and Sister
This chapter is titled "Brother and Sister." This refers to the bond between Hansel and Gretel as well as Magda and her brother the Priest. The familial bond is an emerging theme in the text. For a definition of emerging theme, view the video clip below. As you read, begin to identify unique elements that the sibling relationships have that other relationships in the text lack. (This annotation contains a video)
Magda's brother is upset and concerned about the arrival of the children and Magda's desire to keep and rear the children. Which of the following best describe Magda's tone when she responds to her brother's questions and concerns?
Magda's brother states, "You don't care about these Jews." He cannot understand why Magda is risking so much during a time when any illicit move could result in death. Why do you think Magda decides to adopt the children? Use textual evidence to support your response.
The introduction of Nelka and Telek are deviations from the original text. They will both play crucial roles in the text and are both unique characters. Hansel bases his first impressions of Nelka on her beauty and her lack of fear or anger. Telek is unique because of his knowledge of the terrain and his devotion to Nelka.
How do the presence of Telek and Nelka change the mood in Magda's hut?
The author of the text transposes the allusions of the original story and the details of the setting in order to create a new and believable tale. During the Holocaust, many people assumed new identities in order to escape death. In the video clip below, Emmy-award winning film maker Martin Marzynski retells how he was sent to live as a Christian and served as an altar boy during World War II in order to survive the Holocaust. (This annotation contains a video)
Gretel can remember the past and a time before the war and the Nazis. Hansel is skeptical of Gretel's memories because "in the ghetto there had been three books, and not toys exactly but sometimes there was a piece of chalk for a game or the cigarette cards." What does this indicate about Hansel's character?
A second emerging theme in the text is the loss or reconstructing of identity. This theme is first introduced when Hansel and Gretel are given their new names and continues with developing their new identities. For Hansel, this is easy; he does not have many memories to forego and reconstruct. Gretel has a more difficult time with privately accepting her new history. A consequence of creating a new life through lies and reconstructing the truth is that you must forget your former life ever was.
The Mechanik does not give the impression that he is a survivor or has the skills to become one of the partisans. However, when he returns to retrieve his motorcycle, the omniscient narrator reveals that he knows German, he can identify deficiencies in the German military strategy, and he is knowledgeable about the despicable capabilities of the German soldiers. What does this illustrate about the human spirit?
Killing is a common occurrence in the text due to the setting. It is also important because it develops a feeling of intensity about each of the characters' actions and decisions; each and every decision they make is literally about life or death. This will help you understand the sacrifices that some characters make in order to endure.
As the Mechanik leaves the woods to reunite with his wife and the partisans, he repeats to himself that there are no Jewish children in the forest. The narrator states that "only his eyes betrayed him and leaked bitter water onto his face as he fled." What does this characterization reveal about the Mechanik?
The Village Piaski
The author juxtaposes Hansel's character with Magda's to illustrate how immature and young Hansel is versus the more experienced and wise Magda. Hansel and Gretel's characters are also contrasted as well. It is evident that Gretel was forced to abandon her childhood and adopt a more adult role as a result of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Unlike most adolescents, Gretel is able to accurately assess a situation and understand the mood. As you read, note how Hansel and Gretel's characters develop and change.
At some point both the Communists and Nazis have dehumanized the Polish people and tried to strip them of their native identity. How does religion play a role in this dehumanization? Explain how identity and religion are both important elements of the text. Use textual evidence to support your conclusions.
Throughout the text, the author consistently alludes to animals - tamed or untamed. Sometimes she compares characters to animals or intimates a comparison between animals and characters. This reoccurring use animal imagery and reference to animal behavior is an example of a motif. View the video below to see a complete definition of a motif and how the device helps to develop other elements of the text. (This annotation contains a video)
Because the story is told from the omniscient narrator's perspective, we learn that a couple in the village has not revealed to the Nazis or anyone else in the village that one of their children has died and as a result are surreptitiously using her ration card. This is an example of which literary device?
The Nazi Major believes Gretel is German. She is blonde haired, blue-eyed, and understands German. He refers to he and Gretel as the "Klturtrager" which means someone who disseminates cultural ideas. What is he implying by this statement?
When the old man Feliks informs Gretel that the poster that describes the "crimes" committed against the German soldiers was "Lies!" and that three prisoners died as a result, Gretel's response is "Only three?" What does this convey about Gretel's character?
With the exception of the villagers, the other characters in the text lack actual names. The clerk is Polish, but not from the village. "He had no ties to the village" so "he was called Clerk." This is evidence of the theme of loss of identity. Thus far the victims of the war have been stripped of their ability to worship their faith, their names, and their pasts. What else may they lose by the end of the text?
The SS officer and his traveling party adulterate the village; their arrival is symbolic of
There is an odd dynamic between the SS Oberfuhrer, the Brown Sister, and Major Frankel. Major Frankel was a military officer who earned his title fighting on the front lines of the war for German. SS Officers usually never saw a battle. They were part of the personal bodyguards for Hitler, ran the concentration camps, and worked as an intelligence agency. Though the SS Oberfuhrer outranked the Major, Major Frankel had actually defended Germany in the war. For more information about the Brown Sister, please click on the link below. (This annotation contains a link)
As Major Frankel looks at the Oberfuhrer, he notices that he is very handsome. He reasons that the SS "didn't take pimply humpbacks. Stalingrad was good enough for the ugly Germans." What does his statement imply?
Even though Wiktor is working for the Nazis, he illustrates how there is suffering throughout the village because of the Nazi presence there. The mood the text may change slightly but there is always a melancholy that hangs in the air.
The narrator notes that the members of the partisan group were safer because "no one [was] counting on the others to save them." Which theme does this exemplify?
The author contrasts the life of the family prior to the Nazi occupation of Poland and their current life to illustrate that they did not live in an impoverished state before. They were most likely upper-middle class citizens, had modern conveniences, and were well-respected citizens. The theme of loss of identity is exemplified through these memories.
The partisans kill the residents of the farm and burn it to the ground for what purpose?
The stepmother is unlike her husband in many ways. She is has instincts and survival skills that he lacks and her perspective of the situation is acute and not myopic. Though at times she seems cold and apathetic, she must do this in order to insure they survive and can be reunited with the children.
Telek relays the information that the SS officer and the Brown Nurse are "looking for children who are blond and blue-eyes" and without "flaws or scars or broken bones or birthmarks." Andrzej declares, "We'll have to make sure that there are no perfect children in our village." This implies that they will maim or scar their own children to save them. Which theme does this illustrate?
It is ironic that by saving the children of the village, Telek will be exiled from the village forever.
The author of the text sets the tale in Bialowieza Forest. The forest symbolizes innocence because it "has never been burned or logged." This is contrasted to the children who have endured so much that their innocence is lost. This is an example of which literary device?
The dynamic between Telek and the children is characterized as paternal. He cares for them and watches over them. Initially, this may have been the result of his affection for Nelka, but the relationship between the children and Telek has developed separately from his feeling for Nelka.
Telek warns Hansel and Gretel that they should never go into the forest alone. He is concerned because "the boy was too independent." This is an example of which literary device?
In the Cage
The grippe is another term for the flu. If left untreated, the flu can be deadly (even by modern standards). Magda's fear that Gretel may succumb to the grippe is very real. View the video below to see an example of cupping. This practice is still used today by acupuncturists. (This annotation contains a video)
Magda uses a chicken crate to keep Gretel safe as she recovers from the grippe. This also serves as a(n) __________ to the original text.
In Jewish folklore the Angel of Death is represented in three ways: he is a mocked and defeated by being tricked into believing the soul he is searching for is already dead, he is willing succumbed to and the victim accepts his or her death, or death may be moved to pardon his intended victim because the victim performs an unselfish act. Hansel's actions are intended to fool death so that he may not take Gretel's soul. Magda partakes in the deed to pacify Hansel. This is one of the few indications of Hansel's true identity.
December 10 , 1943
Basha and Andrzej are ultimately hanged for lying about their daughter's death. Their bodies are left to hang in the square as an example to the other villagers about consequences of their actions. This act illustrates which theme?
Telek and the stepmother are both compared to a wolf several times in the text. This is an example of the animal motif throughout the text. This motif helps to develop two themes: loss of identity and dehumanization. In order to survive, Telek and the stepmother rely more on their instincts rather than the relationships they have developed with other people. As the plot continues, consider how people must be more animalistic in order to dehumanize another human the way the Nazis dehumanize the villagers and other victims.
As Nelka labors, Gretel remembers that she has only seen a dog give birth once and Magda instructs Nelka to "Pant. Like a dog." These are examples of which literary device?
Unlike the other chapters, this chapter is titled by a date. The chapter's structure is also different because it presents scenes from both plots. Why do you think the author chooses to juxtapose the birth of Nelka's child and Telek's mission with the partisans?
The Mechanik is humming the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, as he prepares a bomb to blow up the rail line. What does this foreshadow?
This is an important chapter in the text because for the first time the plots intersect. Telek and the stepmother are the only two who are aware that the children's father is part of the partisans. They will not reveal this information to protect them all.
When Nelka's son is born, Magda blesses him and says, "May I eat at your wedding boy" with sadness. What does this imply?
Telek warned Gretel to never go into the woods alone and ironically worried that Hansel would be the one to not heed his warning. What dangers could Gretel encounter in the forest?
As Gretel is raped, she believes that "she was dead now." Literally she believes the men will kill her once they have both raped her, but what is the figurative meaning of her thoughts?
Unlike the stepmother from the fairytale, Gretel's stepmother dies protecting Gretel from evil. Her concern for her stepchildren leads to her death. As you continue to read, identify other examples of how the author changes elements of the original tale to transform the overall themes and characters.
Compare and contrast the author's use of the wolf metaphor to describe various characters throughout the text. What does the author convey about the duality of humanity through this image? Use textual evidence to support your conclusions.
Gretel's rape is an important element in the rising action of the text, but it is not the climax. Though Hansel and Gretel's lives will be impacted by this event, the effects are not irrevocable. View the video below to review the elements of plot. Please note: when you think of climax, consider it the point of no return in a text. The characters' lives will be adulterated, and they must learn to adapt and adjust to their new lives. (This annotation contains a video)
It is ironic that the children choose to play soldier and choose to be German soldiers. Why do you think they choose to play this game and not something more pleasant? Why do you think they choose to be German soldiers as opposed to Polish or Russian soldiers? Use textual evidence to support your answer.
Halina's aunt does not want her associating with Hansel out of fear. Hansel is the unknown and in this setting, the unknown can lead to one's death. Halina's parents are already dead, so it obvious that her aunt would be concerned that they would lose Halina too. This exchange exemplifies that death is a prevalent figure in every decision the villagers make.
Gretel's insanity strikes fear into Hansel for all of the following reasons except
Which term accurately describes the situation Telek is dealing with?
Telek looks at the image of Jesus on the cross and asks, "Why don't you do something?" This is ironic because the image of Jesus' crucifixion symbolizes that he gave his life in order to save humanity from their sins. The theme of loss of faith is prevalent in Holocaust literature. In Elie Wiesel's Night, he retells a story about a young boy referred to as a "pipel" hanged in front of the entire work camp. Another prisoner calls out, "For God's sake, where is God?" And from within [Wiesel], [he] heard a voice answer. "Where he is? This is where hanging here from this gallows ."
The villagers know that the Major believes they are intrinsically doltish and provincial. They use this to their advantage when they must mutilate their children to prevent them from being chosen by the Brown Sister. This is an example of which theme?
By saving their children, Telek isolates himself more from the village and in a sense destroys a part of his humanity as well. This illustrates how the actions of the Germans indirectly as well as directly caused the dehumanization of people they invaded and occupied.
Nelka will not allow Telek to scar her child because she believes the scar symbolizes
This chapter is titled "Blood." The contents of the chapter are a graphic. The Oberfuhrer uses women to have blood transfusions in order to feel rejuvenated. There are many ethical problems with this procedure, but the Oberfuhrer also uses this procedure as a means of stimulation. If this practice is revealed to the other members of the SS, he may be killed because Nelka is not a German and it is illegal during this time for Germans and Polish to have sexual relations let alone share blood. These laws were known as mecegenation laws.
Which term accurately describes the highlighted passage?
Though a theme in the text is loss or reconstructing of identity, Wiktor feels a connection to the village people because they are both Polish; he feels empathy for them at times. Do you think this may benefit the villagers in the future?
The Oberfuhrer's objectification of Nelka results in a conflict between Telek and Nelka. Explain the conflict using specific textual examples. Which of the novel's themes does this conflict illustrate?
Christmas Eve, 1943
The Major is a reasonable man on some level. He is not like the Oberfuhrer who is a static character. The Major has a contempt for the Oberfuhrer's lack of experience in battle and apathy for most forms of human life other than his or other SS officials. The Major knows that the Oberfuhrer may cause catastrophic problems for the soldiers stationed in the village. How may this developing conflict between the two men benefit the villagers in the future?
Though it is Christmas Eve and Magda and her family are celebrating, Magda reminds Gretel that they may not have chicken because it is a fast day. She worries that "they had to remember if the Germans asked them." Even though it is a celebration, what does this illustrate?
The highlighted passage is an example of a second motif in the text: the gift of foresight. Magda is not prophetic in the sense that she can predict precise future events, but she is able to foresee that "darkness" is coming and knows generalities about the future. You may want to go back through the text and note other examples where characters demonstrate their foresight. Which theme do you think this will help develop?
Magda realizes that her brother is forced to be drunk every Sunday because the Germans have allowed mass to be held. Why would the Nazis force Father Piotr to do this?
Father Piotr is not a pious man. He is a priest who has illegitimately fathered a child, denied his heirs, and now is at the mercy of the Nazi party. Somehow Magda understands his internal conflicts and does not judge him for his mistakes. This exchange illustrates the theme of the familial bond.
Magda shows Hansel the way to the secret underground bunker and instructs him to go there to be safe when the time comes. Hansel asks, "When, Magda?" and she replies, "Soon I think." This is an example of
When the stepmother is killed, the father loses another piece of his identity and his security. This exemplifies the theme of loss and reconstructing of identity.
The unarmed German man tells the partisans that he is a doctor and the Nazis ordered him to do "it." While this may be true, the partisans do not care and like the farmer and his family, will kill him for his deeds. Which quote best illustrates the partisans' beliefs?
Though the partisans retaliation was gruesome, the Russian justifies his actions by contrasting the Russians with the Nazis: the Russians must drink afterward because "they feel too damn much." Do you think that this is a valid contrast?
What does Magda's prayer reveal about how her relationship with the children has developed? Would you characterize Magda as a dynamic or static character? Use textual evidence to support your conclusions.
The tension in the examination room is palpable because Magda realizes that there is a good possibility she could lose both of the children; the SS are unconscionable and would kill Gretel because she is mad and kill Hansel because he is circumcised. There is a slim chance that they will all go home alive at the end of this examination.
Because the narrator is ____________ we are able to understand the conversation between all of the parties present in the examination room. It is important to note that Magda does not speak German, so she is unaware that the Major saves Gretel's life by mentioning her relation to Nelka. This is another example of dramatic irony.
Nelka's character is circumspect. She is always thinking about the ramifications of her actions and how they will impact not only her life but the lives of her family as well. She is also compassionate and selfless. She would rather allow her child to be raised safely by Germans than run and have the entire village punished for her actions.
March 11, 1944
1944 is an important year in World War II. During that year, the United States stormed the beaches of Normandy and liberated most of France from Nazi occupation. In Poland, the Russians were pushing back the German front. The Germans made the same mistake that Napoleon made while battle Russian troops: they entered Russia in the winter. The Russian troops purposely retreated into the Russian countryside because they were well-equipped to survive the harsh conditions during the winter. As the Germans followed, they soon realized they did not have the supplies or the sustenance to survive the winter or the battles. By July 1944, the Russians had entered Szczebrzeszyn in Poland.
When the young man Dobry asks Starzec if he will be reunited with his parents, Starzec simply advises him to pray. Dobry is discouraged because "he had prayed for three years, and there was no good that had come of the prayers." This exemplifies which motif?
The partisans realize that the Russians have an American Jeep. This is a positive sign because the vehicle was innovative for its time and helped Americans throughout WWII. The video below outlines the advent of the vehicle. (This annotation contains a video)
What do you think will happen as a result of Hansel showing the underground bunker to Halina? Use textual evidence to support your response.
Nelka is aware that Telek's motivation in rescuing her son and absconding into the forest is purely selfish. He wishes to save Nelka and does not care about the fate of the village. The villagers exiled him from the village for his role in saving the children, and he is aware that he will be ostracized.
The purpose of confession is to absolve the sinner of his or her sins. By Telek confessing his feelings of animosity and his intentions to kill in order to save Nelka's child, Telek is supposed to be free from sin. What does this confession afford Father Piotr the opportunity to do?
Hansel is a dynamic character. In the beginning of the text, he was immature, amenable to his new identity, and retained a semblance of innocence. As the text progresses, consider which events forced Hansel to abandon the last shred of innocence he maintained and how his bond with Magda, Nelka, and Telek have impacted the decisions he makes.
Father Piotr saves Nelka's baby for myriad of reasons: to demonstrate his love for Nelka, as penance for his sins, to prevent Telek from committing the crimes. What is another possible reason why Father Piotr chooses to save Nelka's baby?
Father Piotr's self-sacrifice exemplifies the theme of the familial bond. He illustrates that his love for his family is greater than any threat by the Nazis. He also demonstrates that the ties that bond will never be broken and they extend to his adopted family of Hansel and Gretel.
March 21, 1944
Why does the Major instruct he soldier to not wake the Oberfuhrer?
The Major's tone with the Oberfuhrer is smug. Due to the Oberfuhrer's ignorance about the war and the battle on the front, he gives the command to murder a third of the village with any forethought. He gives the command based on his need for vengeance and desire to exert his authority. The Major knows that the Oberfuhrer has no choice but to acquiesce to his commands because of the Oberfuhrer's inappropriate actions with Nelka.
How does the inclusion of Telek and Nelka's story impact the overall theme of the adapted version of the original text? Do you think their story was necessary or did it detract from the story of Hansel and Gretel? Use textual evidence to support your response.
Once again the author uses this chapter as a hub for the parallel plots to converge. Consider how this structure helps to develop the falling action as you read.
Based on the Oberfuhrer's character, can you trust him when he says, "We are merciful. You show us the house, and then you can walk home"? Predict what may happen after Zanna directs the SS to Magda's home. Use textual and historical evidence to support your response.
The author uses the allusions to the original text in order to subvert the characterization of the witch and her intentions with Hansel and Gretel.
Why does the Sergeant pretend to kill Zanna? Base your answer on the highlighted passage.
Hansel and Gretel's roles have reversed completely from the beginning of the text. Though Hansel must now care for the helpless Gretel, their interaction demonstrates the theme of the familial bond. Though it would be easier for Hansel to abandon Gretel and survive without her, he endures with her.
Which term best characterizes the Mechanik's emotional state as he searches for Hansel and Gretel outside the remnants to Magda's hut?
Unlike the other characters in the text, Magda has regained her faith throughout the text. This may be attributed to the introduction of Hansel and Gretel into her life. In the falling action of the text, Magda resolves her feelings about the atrocities in the war by saying, "Because of Hansel you can let the world live. But if they kill him, I say that thou must come down with all your angels and end it. I charge you with this."
When Magda enters the camp, she is referred to as "Grandmother" by the other prisoners. What does this symbolize?
The image below is an aerial map of the gas chamber and crematorium at Birkenau. This is where Magda would have been undressed, gassed, and then burned. (This annotation contains an image)
What does the highlighted passage symbolize?
Based on the narrator's description, it seems as if the children will be captured and executed by the Oberfuhrer. Had this pursuit occurred earlier in the text, that may have been possible, but Hansel is a dynamic character and has matured and has the tools to survive.
In the conversation between Jedrik and Feliks, the men ____________ Poland as a woman who has been raped. This illustrates how the land is as much a part of their identity as their family pedigree.
Telek and Nelka are finally able to leave the village and Poland behind because "there's no family for either of us here." They are a family unit now, and they are concerned with their fates.
The situation between Jedrik, the Mechanik, and the Russian is ironic because
The scene between the Mechanik and Jedrik exemplifies the lack of security the people of occupied Poland face - even with the withdrawal of the Nazi troops and the Russian forces in control of Poland.
When the children are found hiding in the barn, the woman refuses to protect them. She states, "We're not going to get killed now. Not after the last five years." What has the woman lost as a result of the Nazi occupation?
Through Hansel's anger with Gretel his youth and immaturity is revealed. He still doesn't quite understand why she is like this and doesn't understand how she could not care about living or dying.
What is the significance of the swans? Use textual evidence to support your answer.
The Wheat Field
Gretel's clarity and memories are restored when she is faced with losing the only thing she has left in life: Hansel. The bond between the two of them has resurrected her.
Though the Russians have captured the city and the Germans are no longer occupying this area of Poland, what is the mood among the residents of Bialystok?
Based on his character, why would the Oberfuhrer want to harm Hansel and Gretel now?
It is evident that the Oberfuhrer has not discovered that Hansel and Gretel are not related to Nelka and are not gypsies but in fact Jewish. This is an example of
It is ironic that after years of hiding the fact that they are Jewish, Hansel's life is saved by declaring, "I'm a Jew!" as the Oberfuhrer holds him captive.
The denouement of the retold tale remains the same as the original. Why do you think the author did not deviate from this detail? What theme is reinforced through a positive ending to the story?
Magda explains that "the truth is no heavier, no more beautiful than the lies," and in essence they are no different. Both illustrate the same theme: in the end you will always have your family. Just like in the original fairytale, the children and their father find one another. This demonstrates how the familial bond will survive despite attempts to destroy it.