Originally, “Hansel and Gretel” was a fairy tale of German origin adapted by Giambattista Basile and then later by Brothers Grimm. They were children of a poor woodcutter and had a stepmother who feared of starvation and convinced their father to leave them into deep forests. When Hansel and Gretel came to know of their plan, Hansel gathered white pebbles and left trail behind to find their way back home. But their stepmother again coaxed woodcutter to leave them in the woods and this time children left the trail of breadcrumbs but unfortunately the birds ate these breadcrumbs and they lost the trail. They got lost in the woods and on the way they found a house made of ginger, bread and candies with sugar windows. They could not resist the temptation and started eating. Owner of the house was an old lady who invited them inside and prepared feast for them. But this old lady was a witch who wanted to bake them in the oven and eat them when they would get fat, but children came to know about the trick of the old and made a plan to escape from her clutches. They tricked her and ultimately rescued themselves and got united with their father.
To this story, Louise Murphy modified to bring the picturesque and tales of horror of the real life of Jewish people who not only had to escape themselves from the Nazis aggression but also from their torturous lives of poverty and deprivation. The following essay will review the way Louise Murphy through this old fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel presented the stories of terrified and weird people and the victims of war. She ultimately captured the emotions and strength these people displayed in their fight against these struggles and the way they moved towards their path of survival, which was again not the bed of roses for them.
It was the winter of 1943, when just at the outskirts of the dark forest, two children belonging to the Jewish family escaped from the Nazis. To hide their true identity, their father gave them the name of Hansel and Gretel and left them alone into the woods to escape Nazis. Gretel led her younger brother who was in search of food while Hansel left behind the trail of breadcrumbs so that their father could locate them and they could be reunited. From this point began the story of Hansel and Gretel and the search for their survival in deep into the forest, which appeared to be more primitive than the birth of a man. In the forest, children had to come face to face with the beasts, refugees, and not withstanding several revolutionaries who had hidden themselves in the forests to escape from Nazi soldiers. It was in these forests they made plan for revenge. In the vicinity of these forests, children renewed their life afresh as orphans. They were found by a woman named Magda who by physical appearance looked like a witch of a fairy tale but she appeared here as a goddess figure for the children. She protected them and gave them shelter in her tiny hut. She too, like the witch of the old fairy tale, had a huge bakers oven. It was the Bialowieza forest, the most mysterious and oldest of all the forests yet beautiful and serene.
Magda considered being a witch lived in the region of Eastern Poland at the edge of Piaski that was occupied by Russians and then by Germans. She had a family who all had different traits and habits, as her brother Piotr was a fallen priest, her niece Nelka was the most beautiful and was in love with a woodsman, her grandmother who had expired was an abortionist gypsy. All the villagers including Magda were always filled with terror at the sight of even small presence of Nazis that had brought them only horrific tales of bloodshed. The whole landscape of the village appeared to be a horror film with villagers humiliated and getting brutalized by ruthless SS officers.
Major Frankel had always been looked upon as an evil character but he was basically a man with a good heart but with a character of mixed paradox not seen by any one before. He was scarred and broken by heart, was facing an internal conflict and the bruises he got from the war made him physically and emotionally weaker man from inside.
Murphy also made us to look at the different facets of life faced by the father of Hansel and Gretel who entered into revolutionary actions and found complete transformation in himself. We are shown inherent emotions of father mixed with the fear of never seeing his children again and also with a hope that God might make the way for him to find his children and they would be reunited. It was only one among very few works of fiction committed itself to give voice to the minority and subjugated class who were heard only by the beasts and tall trees of the forests, which hid them. They actively participated in the resistance movement while on the same hand struggled with God because of the crises that God had befallen on them and on the whole humanity. They wanted desperately to live in the new and just world.
It is the lesson for the world through the lives of two children who in the midst of all the tales of terrors are struggling and giving every bit of their life to live so that they can be reunited with their father. The prose of the whole story is very lightening and resplendent with the meaning of love amidst this trail of trauma. It is a new story of the Jewish people and their struggle yet Murphy is able to retain essence of the old story to infuse in it the meaning of the new life. In the trauma of life and the nature of war that leaves behind only trail of horror, it is the love only that can come to the rescue of human beings. From all the travails of horror and the world of witch and the beast people find true meaning of life and their true identity. It is the primal power of people during their struggle that gives essence to the story and it is the tale of two brave children who never give up their spirit of their struggle and their battle. It is also a story of women who never wanted to be recognized by any convention.
Murphy’s rewritten version of “Hansel and Gretel” is a best antidote version of trauma and repression. With the help of dim recollections of the past, Hansel was managed to recognize his surviving father at the end but Gretel, his sister could not do so. Though they were united, Gretel did not have anything to offer to the weeping father who was filled with emotions after reuniting with his child whom he thought had lost. Gretel had lost her original identity and her biological mother, stepmother, and her surrogate mother Magda all had been killed. She could not forget her own long discarded name but was spared from the horrors of her recent past. (Goodenough & Immel, 195)
Murphy based this story on three years of research on the lives of Jews and the Holocaust. As said by Kliatt, “Focusing on this microcosm of the war, Murphy brings its horrors to the reader in a persona and human way,” (Kliatt, 18) whereas Mark Harris said Murphy termed the classic fairy tale into a “parable of survival” (Harris, 83) which was the best and an “intriguing idea.” (Harris, 83) This extraordinary version from the ordinary tale of children showed author’s depth of the knowledge about the world around and the people.
The “True Story of Hansel and Gretel” is a story that shows her real nature and aptitude as she penned out real characters and picaresque scenes of the holocaust and tortures, poverty and deprivation out of the fairy tale of “Hansel and Gretel”. Along with this, she reversed the original story with the fact that in the fairy story there was a witch who wanted to eat children but Murphy’s witch was a grand lady with a humble heart who protected children. With character of old lady, Louise shows how much there is a difference in the nature of the people around and what we perceive and generally assume about them especially old ladies and what has been generally presumed and crafted about them in the fairy tales. In the story we can witness the stepmother as pragmatic but not cruel as emphasized in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Here their stepmother coxed the children’s father to make them go away not because she hated them but because she knew that four of them could not withstand the chance of getting past the Nazis.
Through the real life characters, Murphy gave a touch of realism to the fictitious fairy tale of children while emphasizing on the several complex motives people have while taking decisions and performing actions.
Goodenough, Elizabeth & Immel, Andrea. “Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War”. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2008.
Harris, Mark. “Review of The True Story of Hansel and Gretel.” Entertainment Weekly 2003.
Kliatt. “Review of The True Story of Hansel and Gretel.” Nola Thesis 2003.