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  • Gertruda's Oath
  • Written by Ram Oren
    Translated by Barbara Harshav
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  • Gertruda's Oath
  • Written by Ram Oren
    Translated by Barbara Harshav
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780385530569
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A Child, a Promise, and a Heroic Escape During World War II

Written by Ram OrenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ram Oren
Translated by Barbara HarshavAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Barbara Harshav

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On Sale: August 04, 2009
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-385-53056-9
Published by : Image Religion/Business/Forum
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Trapped in the horrors of World War II, a woman and a child embark on a journey of survival in this page-turning true story that recalls the power and the poignancy of Schindler’s List.

Michael Stolowitzky, the only son of a wealthy Jewish family in Poland, was just three years old when war broke out and the family lost everything. His father, desperate to settle his business affairs, travels to France, leaving Michael in the care of his mother and Gertruda Bablinska, a Catholic nanny devoted to the family. When Michael's mother has a stroke, Gertruda promises the dying woman that she will make her way to Palestine and raise him as her own son.

Written with the invaluable assistance of Michael, now seventy-two and living in New York City, GERTRUDA’S OATH re-creates Michael and Gertruda’s amazing journey. Gripping vignettes bring to life the people who helped ensure their survival, including SS officer Karl Rink, who made it his mission to save Jews after his own Jewish wife was murdered; Rink’s daughter, Helga, who escaped to a kibbutz, where she lived until her recent death; and the Jewish physician Dr. Berman, who aided Michael and Gertruda through the worst of times.

GERTRUDA’S OATH is a story of extraordinary courage and moral strength in the face of horrific events. Like Schindler’s List, it transcends history and religion to reveal the compassion and hope that miraculously thrives in a world immersed in war without end.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Introduction
The smoke clouds of war slowly began to dissipate and the spring sun broke through, caressing the ruins that buried tens of thousands of human beings, flooding the devastated streets, and scattering sparks of light on the waters of the broad Vistula River that slowly bubbled up to wash away memories of dread and death.
On the hill, above scarred Warsaw, stood the ancient and magnificent mansion of the Stolowitzky family, which had miraculouslysurvived the war intact. Four floors of hewn stone, carved edges, statues of ancient warriors on the roof ledge, impressive mosaic windows and painted wooden ceilings.
Only two of the original inhabitants of the mansion were still alive, a boy and his nanny, and they were on their way to another country, far away. In their new home, between peeling walls, rust spots spreading in the bathtub, and cheap furniture–that mansion with all its splendor and charm seemed like a daydream, the product of an overactive imagination.
The boy and his nanny, who adopted him as a son, lived in a small apartment in one of the alleys of Jaffa, in a tenement. From the window, they saw only dreary buildings, children playing in an abandoned yard, and women returning home from the market, carrying heavy shopping bags. Most of the day, the apartment was invaded by the noise of passing cars and the stench of garbage. In winter the smell of mildew permeated the rooms, and in summer the walls trapped a blazing stifling air.
In the mansion on the hill, everything, of course, was different. The big building with its spacious wings, its gardens, was properly heated in winter and properly cooled in summer. A pure breeze from the river blew in the windows and servants tiptoed about to avoid any undue noise. The closets were stuffed with expensive clothes. Luxurious meals were served in rare china dishes. The old heavy cutlery, polished clean, was gold, and the wine was poured into fine crystal glasses.
Michael Stolowitzky and his adoptive mother, Gertruda, had survived the war and now both of them were struggling to survive in the new land. He attended school. She was past her prime by now. Every morning she’d go to work as a cleaning woman in the northern part of the city and return in the evening, her joints aching and her eyes weary. Michael would greet her with a kiss, take off her shoes, cook her meager supper, and make her bed. He knew she was working too hard only to have enough money to send him to school and provide for all his needs. He swore that someday he would pay her back generously for everything she had done for him–for saving him from death, for devoting her life to him, for making sure he didn’t lack anything.
Poverty and shortages weren’t strangers to Michael Stolowitzky. He had experienced them throughout his journey of survival in the world war, but he also saw light at the end of the tunnel, the end of penury, the end of the daily struggle for existence. He believed that someday, in the not-too-distant future, everything would change and things would go back to the way they were, to the days when they knew wealth and comfort, days far from suffering and torments.
His rosy future was within reach, clear and concrete. Only a four- hour flight from Israel lay a blocked treasure, millions of dollars and gold bars deposited in Swiss banks by his late father, Jacob, the Jew who was called “the Rockefeller of Poland.” Michael was his only heir.
The legacy, a small recompense for the suffering and loss of the war, filled Michael’s thoughts and assumed a central place in his fantasies. When he was recruited into the Israeli army, he waited impatiently for his military service to end so he could work on getting the money. He was sent to a battle unit and was wounded in the leg by a bullet from a Syrian sniper during a firefight in the northern Kinneret.
Groaning in pain, he was taken to the operating room in the hospital in Poriya. When he opened his eyes after the anesthesia wore off, he saw his adoptive mother weeping. He held his weak hand to her and she clutched it to her bosom.
“Don’t cry,” he said. “I promise you that everything will be fine.”
When he was discharged from the army, he returned to their small apartment and the very next day he went to look for work. No work was beneath him. He was a messenger on a scooter, running around all hours of the day among customers in Tel Aviv; he worked as a waiter in the evening; and he was a guard at a textile factory at night. It was important for him to save up money.
Two years later, in June 1958, he took all his savings and the surviving family documents and bought an airplane ticket to Zurich.
“How long will you be there?” asked Gertruda anxiously.
“Two or three days. I don’t think I’ll have to stay any longer than that.”
“And if they won’t give you the money?”
He smiled at her confidently. “Why won’t they? You’ll see, I’ll come back with my inheritance and our whole life will change,” he promised.
She went to the airport with him and kissed him good- bye.
“Take care of yourself,” she said. “And take care of the money. Don’t let them steal it from you.”
“Don’t worry,” he replied.
He got on the plane, excited and anxious. In Zurich he rented a small room and couldn’t fall asleep all night. He had only the name of one bank among those where his father had deposited his funds, and the next day he went there. He pictured the bank clerks bringing him heaps of money and his adoptive mother welcoming him when he got back to Israel, rich and carefree. He knew exactly what he would say to her:
“We’re rich, Gertruda. Now we’ll move to our own house, we’ll buy whatever we want, and most important–you won’t ever have to work again.”
And she would wind her arms around him, and would say to him, as always:
“My dear, I don’t need money. I only need you to be with me.”

Two Weddings
1.
Shrouded in a uniform decorated with the military medals inherited from his forefathers, the marquis Stefan Roswadovsky bit his lips in rage and drained another glass of brandy. He was a potbellied, ruddy- faced man, whose seventy- two years had passed in a nonstop journey of pleasures. Under his broad jaw, like a plump dumpling,hung a pink double chin, which grew and thickened as the rest ofhis body swelled with his gluttony.
From the yard came the rustle of carriage wheels entering thegate, and the taste of nausea, as the taste of impending disaster, rose in the marquis’s throat. What wouldn’t he give to prevent this?
Gloomy leaden clouds, like his mood, hung over Warsaw. A thin silent rain fell on the flower gardens of the mansion at Ujazdowska Avenue 9 when the carriage stopped and the driver jumped from his seat and opened the door. A man of about forty, lean and tall, in an elegant wool coat, got out of the carriage. His face was firm and his step supple and confident. The driver opened an umbrella over his head and walked him to the door. From the corner of his window, the marquis watched them in despair. In a few minutes, he knew,
the door would be opened and the honor that had been the glory for generations, passing as a legacy from father to son, his family honor and his own honor, would be trampled and desecrated by a coarse foot.
A servant with a frozen face, wearing a black frock, led the guest in and took his coat.
“Will the gentleman please wait until I announce his arrival,” he said submissively.
The servant silently entered Roswadovsky’s office and bowed deeply.
“Marquis,” he said, “Mr. Stolowitzky has arrived.”
The marquis hesitated. “It won’t hurt the Jew to wait a little,” he grumbled. He needed more time to prepare for the meeting.

With a sigh, the marquis sank deeper into his armchair. His forefathers looked on from the velvet- covered walls, decorated army officers, bearing swords, astride noble steeds with gleaming hides. Next to them, in gold frames, were the portraits of their beautiful plump wives in splendid gowns, wearing gold jewelry and diamonds. Persian rugs, woven by experienced artists who toiled for days in the cellars of Isfahan and Shiraz, were spread from wall to wall, and beautiful furniture that could adorn royal palaces stood in various corners of the spacious office.
The elderly marquis stirred uneasily in his chair, nervously pulled his well- tended mustache, and labored to hide his revulsion at his meeting with the man waiting in the next room. Never had it occurred to him that he of all people, offspring of a noble Polish family, only ruler of the fate of hundreds of tenant farmers, owner of lands and precious art, would wind up in such an embarrassing and offensive situation that would roil his peace of mind and stir melancholy thoughts about the order of the world that had been
turned on its head.
In the family of Marquis Roswadovsky, honor and position were supreme values, the core of life. Roswadovsky was sure of what his ancestors would have done if a Jew had dared to set foot in their house. None of them would have hesitated to throw him out and might even have thrashed the man who had the nerve to stand up to them and take advantage of their distress.
Never had members of the Roswadovsky family met Jews like the man now waiting in the vestibule. In Baranowicz in eastern Poland, where the family owned many estates, the Jews would be filled with dread and awe whenever the marquis’s carriage passed by. They all knelt down and didn’t dare raise their eyes to him. Where did those days vanish to, how did his authority fade? Could the floor of his splendid house in Warsaw, one of the many glorious family houses scattered throughout Poland, be defiled by the shoes of one of the Jews of his city, who came not to plead for his favors,
but because the marquis himself summoned him urgently to help get him out of trouble?
Moshe Stolowitzky was the sort of Jew Marquis Roswadovsky didn’t know. He was extraordinarily rich, very powerful and influential; not many men in Poland could boast of his great wealth. He had inherited a great deal of his wealth from his father, a resourceful businessman who had made the bulk of his money before World War I, producing and selling sleepers for railroad tracks, polishing millstones for flour mills, operating a tavern in Baranowicz where he lived, and trading successfully in real estate. When Baranowicz passed from the Poles to the Russians during World War I, many of its residents fled to Warsaw. Moshe Stolowitzky managed to save most of his fortune. Marquis Roswadovsky wasn’t so lucky. In the dead of night, he escaped from the city, leaving behind quite a bit of his wealth, and found shelter in his magnificent house in Warsaw. But his money soon ran out, his debts mounted, and he had to settle them without delay. The only way to satisfy his creditors was hard and painful–he had to sell houses and plots of land. Buyers came and went. Some wanted to take advantage of the marquis’s difficulty and offered unreasonably low prices. Others offered a little more but not enough. Until Moshe Stolowitzky came and finally made a decent offer.

The servant returned to the marquis a few minutes later.
“Mr. Stolowitzky’s in a hurry,” he said. “He claims he can’t wait.”
The marquis grumbled aloud. “He’s got some nerve, that Jew,” he growled.
The servant was silent, waiting for instructions.
“Fine, show him in.” The marquis swallowed his revulsion.
A few minutes later, Moshe Stolowitzky stood in the doorway, looking directly at the marquis. He came to do business from a position of strength. He had no time for small talk or pleasant manners.
Reluctantly, the marquis entered into a business discussion with his guest, who conducted hard and uncompromising negotiations. In the next hour, Roswadovsky sold him buildings and lots in Baranowicz and also transferred to him ownership of the house in Warsaw. As always, when he was in desperate need of money, it outweighed honor, position, and every other consideration. With a heavy heart, the Polish marquis swallowed his offense and signed the bill of sale.
It was very hard for him to part from his property, particularly the beautiful house in Warsaw. It was a big mansion, furnished with ostentatious splendor, full of rare art, his pride and joy. In that house, Roswadovsky employed an army of servants, and there was a pantry stuffed with delicacies and a cellar of fine wines. At stately dinners, he entertained the Polish elite and wealthy businessmen, and it was painful to give all that up to prevent a scandalous bankruptcy.
His young mistress, a black- haired beauty, daughter of one of
his tenant farmers, who lived in the mansion in Warsaw and made his visits there even more pleasurable, wept bitter tears when she had to pack her things and return home. The marquis stood helplessly at her side.
“What will happen to me now? What will happen to us?” she sobbed.
The marquis stroked her head and a tear gleamed in the corner of his eye. He had no answer.
Moshe Stolowitzky left the marquis’s house with the feeling that he had made an excellent deal. He was known as an experienced merchant. His crafty mind and audacity paved his way to the offices of senior government officials, and he soon became the contractor for railroad tracks. The hundreds of workers he hired laid railroad tracks throughout Poland and then stretched rails for trains over Russia as well. Anti- Semitic manifestations didn’t bother him because Jew haters didn’t dare touch him. He was a welcome guest in the homes of heads of state and they were glad to be entertained in his own house.
The marquis requested a week to move out of his house in Warsaw. After the last moving van left the place for good, Moshe Stolowitzky moved in there with his wife, Hava, and their little son, Jacob.


2.
Moshe Stolowitzky wasn’t only a rich man, he was also a proud Jew. He regularly read the Yiddish newspaper, Dos Yidishe Tageblat, he and his wife attended the Jewish theater, Wikt, established by the actor Zigmund Turkow, invested in the Yiddish film Yiddl mitn fiddl, which became a hit among Jews throughout the world, contributed to yeshivas and Jewish schools, and supported Jewish writers and poets. Every Friday baskets of Sabbath food were sent on his behalf to the poor of the city, and in his mansion, as was customary among major Jewish philanthropists, a box of cash was set up for grants to the needy who knocked on his door every single day.
His only son, Jacob, was destined to follow in his footsteps. Moshe hired teachers who taught him Hebrew and general sciences, bought him a subscription to the Hebrew children’s newspaper Olam Katan (Small World), and was happy when the boy read stories about Hasids–pious Jews–and the holy places in the Land of Israel.

One stormy winter night, Moshe Stolowitzky sat in the first row in the Novoschi auditorium where about three thousand Jews gathered to listen to a talk by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The short, bespectacled Zionist leader with a serious face called on them to ascend to the Land of Israel before Europe tossed them out. Moshe Stolowitzky admired Jabotinsky and read his writings devotedly, but he thought Jabotinsky exaggerated when he talked about the danger lurking for the Jews of Europe. Stolowitzky and his family, like most of their friends, saw Poland as their homeland and were grateful for the wealth they had amassed there. They felt good and comfortable and naturally it didn’t occur to them that bad times were in store for them as Jabotinsky’s gloomy predictions had foretold.
Before long reality proved to Moshe Stolowitzky that he was living in a fool’s paradise. One Friday evening, the Jewish millionaire was relaxing in his velvet easy chair, facing the Ark of the Covenant in the Tlomackie Synagogue, the biggest and oldest synagogue of Warsaw. For a long time he listened with pleasure to the chanting of the well- known cantor Moshe Koussevitzky, and when it was over, he left the synagogue with a group of worshippers. His carriage was standing nearby and at home his family and a traditional Sabbath meal awaited him. Stolowitzky didn’t get far. A group of anti- Semitic youths surrounded the group of worshippers, threw rocks, and shouted curses at them. The Jews stopped in their tracks, stunned. Most of them had witnessed anti- Semitic persecutions in the past, but never ones so brutal. Only when the attackers tried to snatch their prayer shawl bags did the victims recover and assault the youths. A brawl developed, lasting until the police came and restored order.
In his private carriage, Moshe Stolowitzky, bruised, his clothes torn, returned home. The event itself didn’t worry him too much. He preferred to believe that isolated anti- Semitic incidents didn’t indicate a dangerous trend. He was concerned mainly that his wife would take things more seriously than he, and so he told her only that he had fallen and bruised himself on his way out of the synagogue. She called a doctor, who bandaged him and ordered him to stay in bed for two days.

When he returned to the synagogue a week later, the rabbi mounted the pulpit when prayers had ended. His arm had been broken in the attack and was in a sling.
“I have decided to leave Poland and move with my family to Jerusalem,” he called out in a clear and emotional voice. “Poland is a trap for every Jew. Take your things and leave here before it’s too late.”
Moshe Stolowitzky wished the rabbi good luck and returned home. He told his wife about the panic that had gripped the rabbi and about his decision to leave Poland.
“Maybe he’s right,” she responded pensively.
“Nonsense!” He raised his voice. “There’s no reason to panic.”

3.
June 28, 1924, was a hot, sunny day, and hundreds of Warsaw residents were strolling on the paths through the green lawns along the river. That afternoon, Jacob Stolowitzky introduced his parents to his fiancée, Lydia. He was twenty- two years old, and his bride-tobe was twenty, a handsome girl, thin, the daughter of a Jewish army
officer from Krakow, studying political science in Warsaw. They had met at a party at the home of mutual friends and it was love at first sight.
Hava and Moshe Stolowitzky greeted their son’s fiancée in the ballroom of their mansion and spoke with Lydia about her family and her studies. They liked her very much and didn’t care that her parents weren’t as rich as they were. She was Jewish and their son
loved her and that was what mattered. At the festive dinner they made for Lydia and her parents, the guests toasted the young couple and they set the date for their wedding.

Three months later, the wedding ceremony gave the elite of Warsaw an unforgettable experience. Members of the government, senior officials, tycoons, artists, and intellectuals poured into the mansion and blessed the happy family. Dozens of servants passed among the guests offering abundant delicacies and champagne and an orchestra
played until the last guest withdrew.
The young couple left for a honeymoon in Switzerland and when they returned to Warsaw, a surprise awaited them. Moshe Stolowitzky suggested they live in his splendid mansion and set a big wing aside for them.
Jacob and Lydia settled down comfortably in the spacious house. Lydia ordered furniture from Italy and supervised the crew of servants of their wing–a housekeeper, a cook, two cleaning women, and a chauffeur. Jacob was integrated into the management of his father’s business, which flourished more than ever. He traveled a great deal throughout Europe, signing contracts with various states and amassing a great deal of wealth.
The two of them badly wanted a child. Lydia dreamed he would grow up to be a doctor. His father wanted his son to be a businessman like him, who would someday inherit the family empire. Although they couldn’t agree, both of them had every reason to believe that their child’s future, like their own, would be a bed of roses.
They were wrong.


4.
Karl Rink expected much more from life than he got. He was a twenty-four-year-old bachelor with blue eyes and short hair who worked as a junior accountant for the chemical firm A. G. Farbenin Berlin. His salary was barely enough to pay his rent and buy food. His office was small and dark and his work was boring. He dreamed of a different career, more lucrative and more interesting, which would guarantee him real success. Now and then he even went looking for such a job, but the only work he was offered was in accounting
and that wasn’t enough. He learned very quickly that for every good job that opened up, many people, more talented than he, jumped on the opportunity. Unfortunately for him, the chances of finding another position were growing dim.
The only refuge from his tedious routine was sport. Bicycle racing was the only area where Rink showed real talent. He belonged to the company sport club, trained on the weekend in all weather, riding on mountain paths, and he won trophies that were displayed on a shelf in his small apartment. Above them, in a glass frame, was a local newspaper article reporting on his victory in the district competition of bicycle riders.
On September 12, 1924, he hurried to finish work earlier than usual and returned to his one- room apartment in a dreary workingclass neighborhood in west Berlin. He put on a dark suit and a tie, picked up his parents at their house in a distant suburb, and they
all took a trolley to city hall, where Mira, her parents, and a handful of friends were waiting for him.
Mira, a plump, fair- skinned girl of twenty- one, was starting out
as a clerk in the Department of Wills in the Ministry of Justice. She wore a white dress and stood arm in arm with Karl before the municipal clerk who performed their marriage.
Karl was a Christian and Mira a Jew, but their differences didn’t diminish their love. Karl’s father was a truck driver and his mother was a housewife. They seldom went to church and loved Mira like a daughter. Mira’s parents owned a grocery store and were observant Jews. Even though mixed marriages were common in Berlin, Mira’s parents strongly objected to her marriage with a Christian. Karl tried at length to convince them, and Mira also made considerable efforts to persuade her parents to let her marry her fiancé. In the end, they were forced to agree.
The young couple received a few wedding gifts, mainly glass and china dishes. Karl’s colleagues collected a small sum and his manager gave him a week’s salary as a present. The couple’s parents threw a modest reception and bought them a new double bed.
Happy and in love, Mira and Karl went on a two- day honeymoon to a small town in the Black Forest. They rode bikes on winding paths among the trees, ate blutwurst, and danced to the music of a rustic orchestra in the local beer cellar until the wee hours of the morning. When they returned to Berlin, they settled in Karl’s apartment, and at the end of the year they had a daughter, Helga. They brought her home from the hospital, put her in a cradle, and looked at her with loving eyes.
After everything they had been through, their life was calm. They loved each other and their baby daughter and pushed her stroller in the green parks on warm weekends. Mira was promoted in the Ministry of Justice, and Karl believed he would finally find the work he dreamed of. They both faced the future with confidence. They believed they would have prosperity and professional satisfaction, pure bliss.
They were wrong.


From the Hardcover edition.
Ram Oren

About Ram Oren

Ram Oren - Gertruda's Oath
RAM OREN is known as the John Grisham of Israel. Formerly a lawyer and journalist, he founded the Keshet publishing company and has written more than sixteen runaway bestsellers. GERTRUDA'S OATH is Oren's first English translation sold in the United States. He lives in Israel.
Praise

Praise

"Written with impressive talent and suspense, this true story will appeal to many." --Elie Wiesel


From the Hardcover edition.
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

NOTE TO TEACHERS
In Gertruda’s Oath, Ram Oren relates the harrowing true story of Michael Stolowitzky, a newly-orphaned Jewish boy born to a wealthy Polish family, and Gertruda Babilinska, his Catholic nanny. As Gertruda and Michael seek safe haven in a Europe ravaged by World War II, they face seemingly insurmountable challenges. Oren also examines these tumultuous wartime events through the story of SS officer Karl Rink, whose allegiance to the Nazi Party is called into question by his refusal to divorce his Jewish wife, Mira. In this exploration of the impact of the genocide perpetuated by Adolf Hitler and his adherents, Oren focuses his attention on the remarkable examples of courage that emerged out of the tragedy of the Holocaust. This guide offers instructors the opportunity to consider questions raised by Oren’s account, questions of religious and national affiliation, the nature of sacrifice, and the moral calculus of good and evil.
 
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Ram Oren [Please see this additional edit JC]uncovered the amazing story of Gertruda Babilinska and Michael Stolowitzky after more than a year of research in preparation for a book about the Exodus, the beleaguered transport ship that attempted to deliver more than four thousand Holocaust refugees to Palestine in 1947. In the course of his research, Oren sought out Michael Stolowitzky, a passenger on the Exodus, for an interview. After several hours together, Orem realized that his planned book about the Exodus would never see fruition; instead, he turned his attention to retelling Michael and Gertruda’s story, relying on interviews with Michael, immediate family members and survivors of the Holocaust, contemporaneous documents, and his own extensive historical research. In the course of retelling what he characterizes as “poignant history,” Oren used his estimable talents as a novelist to fill in gaps in the narrative that depended on the incomplete recollections of those involved directly in the story. 
The rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany meant different things to different people. For Karl Rink, formerly a junior accountant at a chemical firm in Berlin, and recently fired from his job due to the economic depression, Hitler’s rise to power represented an opportunity. Rink gratefully accepted an invitation to join the SS—the elite organization of German security services, despite the concerns for their family’s safety voiced by his Jewish wife, Mira.
For Jacob and Lydia Stolowitzky, a prosperous Jewish family who resided in Warsaw with their young son, Michael, Hitler’s advance into Europe presented both a serious threat to their livelihood and to their way of life. When Lydia and Jacob were separated and unable to communicate with each other during the German occupation of Poland, Lydia came to depend almost exclusively on Michael’s Catholic nanny, Gertruda Babilinska. On Lydia’s deathbed, Gertruda vowed to Lydia that she would protect Michael, help him emigrate to Palestine, and raise him as her own child if necessary.
            As Gertruda and Michael navigated the dangers in a Nazi-controlled Europe, they encountered Karl Rink and many other consequential figures who changed the course of their lives forever.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ram Oren is a popular Israeli author known for his bestselling suspense novels. Born in Tel-Aviv in 1936, Oren worked as an unpaid messenger boy for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s leading daily. He later became the paper’s legal correspondent. Oren received his law degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He returned to Yediot Aharonot and served in various capacities, including military affairs correspondent, legal counsel, chief reporter in New York, and Senior Editor.  Following the extraordinary success of his novel, Seduction, Oren left the newspaper in 1994 to focus on his literary career. He founded the Keshet publishing house in 1995, and is the author of fifteen books.
 
TEACHING IDEAS
As a work of nonfiction, Gertruda’s Oath brings the horror and devastation of the Holocaust [tk not sure why this is bolded EJ] [not sure..it wasn’t bolded on the version I submitted JC]to life with unforgettable details from the actual experiences of real people. Because the book examines the experience of the Holocaust from multiple perspectives—from the vantage point of its victims and its perpetrators, from Poles and Germans, from Jews and Christians, from adults and children, from women and men—it provides an unusually comprehensive examination of many of the essential elements involved in the conflicts that dominated World War II, including, but not limited to nationality, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and racial prejudice. Furthermore, the book’s celebration of quiet acts of courage in a time of brutal devastation highlights the eternal battle between good and evil waged by humankind. 
As a work of historical nonfiction, Gertruda’s Oath would make an excellent text in a literature, social studies or history class that examines World War II and its impact on individuals and societies.      
 
DISCUSSION AND WRITING
1) Why was Karl and Mira Rink’s marriage controversial, even though mixed marriages were common at the time in Berlin? How does Karl’s decision to join the SS affect his relationship with his wife, Mira, and his relationships with his extended Jewish family and friends? To what extent does Rink seem to be in denial about Hitler’s agenda for Jewish populations in Europe?
2) Why does Gertruda Babilinska react the way she does when she learns that the Stolowitzky family is Jewish? As a Catholic, what does her reaction reveal about her own biases and feelings about Jews? How does her priest’s advice: “There are good Christians and bad Christians and good Jews and bad Jews,” influence her decision to accept the nanny position? (p. 42)  
3) How does Karl Rink’s unwillingness to participate wholeheartedly in the destruction wrought on Jewish people and properties during “Kristallnacht” jeopardize his reputation within the Nazi Party? Given his ambivalence about participating in such violence against Jews, why does he stay in his position as SS officer?               
4) What do the abduction attempts made against Michael Stolowitzky suggest about his family’s insulation from the economic turbulence experienced by others in Warsaw? How is the direct involvement of Emil, the family’s chauffeur, foreshadowed by his violent behavior toward Gertruda during Jacob Stolowitzky’s absence from home?
5) When Unit Commander Schreider tells Karl Rink that he must choose between his Jewish wife and the party, he orders him to divorce Mira by the end of the week. Why would the Nazi Party be concerned about the loyalty of an officer married to a Jewish woman? By refusing to divorce Mira, despite a direct order from his superior, to what extent is Karl responsible for Mira’s tragic fate?
6) Compare the efforts of Dr. Joseph Berman, a Jewish doctor from Warsaw, and Father Andras [tk Andreas? Check] [Andras is correct JC]Gedovsky, a Catholic priest at the Ostra Brama Church in Vilna, to protect Gertruda and Michael. Why would two people from radically different backgrounds find themselves drawn to help a vulnerable woman and her adopted child?
7) What do Karl Rink’s efforts to get his daughter, Helga, to a kibbutz in Palestine suggest about his awareness of the dangers his family faces by virtue of its Jewish ethnicity? How does Karl Rink’s predicament—being responsible professionally for the conditions that require his daughter to flee the country—call his judgment into question?
8) When Lydia, Gertruda, and Michael escape from Warsaw to Vilna in their Cadillac, they witness Emil’s treachery first-hand. After saving them from the knife-wielding farmers who threaten them on the road, why does Emil go on to abandon and rob them of all their belongings? How might his seemingly contradictory behavior be understood?
9) What does Gertruda’s behavior as a refugee in Vilna—nursing her boss, Lydia Stolowitzky, at night and working by day as a dishwasher, using all of her savings to help Lydia and Michael secure an apartment, deceiving the landlady about her companions’ Jewish ethnicity—suggest about her character? In what respects does she seem hard-wired for sacrifice and serving others above herself? 
10) “Take off my wedding ring…[w]ear it now. From now on, you’ll be Michael’s mother.” (p. 128) How does Lydia’s deathbed request of Gertruda reveal her absolute trust in her son’s nanny? What does Gertruda’s oath to Lydia reveal about her feelings for her young charge, Michael?  
11) Why does Jacob Stolowitzky remarry Anna Massini before learning the truth about Lydia and Michael’s whereabouts? In addition to her love and companionship, what does Anna, an Italian national, offer Jacob? To what extent does his marriage seem driven by self-interest? What do the terms of his will suggest about his hopes for his first wife and child?
12) What does the collective Lithuanian response to the occupation of their country by Germany reveal about the prevailing Lithuanian opinion of the Soviet Union? How do these sentiments extend to the Lithuanians’ treatment of the Jewish refugees who have deluged their country from other parts of Europe?
13) “The Jews were forbidden to travel on public transportation, to own a telephone or a radio, to sit in cafés, to attend the movies or the theater, to go to the barber, to walk on the main streets, and to have any contact with non-Jews. They had to wear yellow armbands.” (p. 151) How does the treatment of the Jews during wartime isolate them socially and racially? To what extent were the German prohibitions on Jews during wartime specifically designed to be dehumanizing?   
14) Why is Gertruda willing to risk everything to deliver Emil’s gun to Dr. Berman in the Jewish ghetto in Vilna? In what context does Gertruda’s smuggling of a weapon into the Jewish underground—an illegal act, according to German military law—seem like a sensible act? How does she benefit directly from having taken such an incredible risk?
15) When the German soldiers command six-year-old Michael to undress so they can determine if he is a Jew,  how does Gertruda’s reaction betray her fear that Michael will be exposed? What would such a discovery mean for Gertruda? Why does SS Officer Karl Rink’s gesture of benevolence stand out in the course of their perilous journey to safety? What do you think accounts for Karl Rink’s compassion to these Polish refugees and to those he encounters in the Kovno Ghetto?
16)  “ ‘Don’t shoot! We’re Poles!’ The soldier lowered his weapon and smiled. He was a Russian.” (p. 210) How does the fact of their Polish ethnicity save Gertruda and Michael when they encounter a Russian soldier aiming a submachine gun at them in the Lithuanian bunker where they have sought shelter? How do life and death hinge on nationality and religious affiliation during World War II? 
17) To what extent do Gertruda’s parents seem justified in reacting with dismay and disbelief when she tells him that she intends to bring Michael to Palestine to raise him as a Jew? As a faithful Catholic, why doesn’t Gertruda attempt to convert Michael to Christianity? After all she has overcome during the war, why does she choose to live with Michael abroad, among other displaced Jews, rather than stay with her biological family in her homeland?
18) How can one reconcile Karl Rink’s act of vengeance against Reinhard Schreider—killing him in cold blood to avenge the murder of his wife, Mira—with his compassionate behavior toward Jews in the course of World War II?  In what respects should Rink be absolved for his acts as an SS officer because of his merciful treatment of Jewish victims during the war?
19) Why does Gertruda have to draw attention to her religious identity as a Catholic in order to gain admittance to the Exodus? Why are the organizers of the ship inclined to leave Gertruda behind? Compare and contrast life on the Exodus to life in the Vilna ghetto.
20) After Gertruda is granted the honorary title of “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem, she moves to a special home for Righteous Gentiles in Nahariya, Israel. Why does Gertruda embrace her new identity as an Israeli gentile? How do the unusual circumstances surrounding Gertruda Babilinska’s burial—first in a Jewish grave, then in a Christian grave—seem symbolic, given the extraordinary life she led?
 
SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES
1) Students will be familiar with Michael Stolowitzky’s experience of the Holocaust from Ram Oren’s account in Gertruda’s Oath. Ask students to research another nonfiction account of Jewish life during World War II to learn more about how children in other parts of Europe fared under Hitler’s regime. How did children’s experiences of the privations of the Holocaust differ from that of adults? How did they cope with the extreme conditions in concentration camps? Among child survivors, how common were “guardian angels”—people like Gertruda Babilinska, Dr. Berman, and Father Gedovsky—who enabled them to endure the trials they faced?
2) Divide the class into four groups. Ask two groups to gather evidence from Gertruda’s Oath that exonerates SS officer Karl Rink of his crimes during World War II. Ask the other two groups to collect evidence that would convict Rink of crimes against humanity. Then pair each group of students with an opposing group, and stage two mini-trials to determine the guilt or innocence of Karl Rink. Ask students to vote on Rink’s fate, based on the strength of the evidence presented for and against him.
3) Ask students to imagine that they and their families are going to be forced to abandon their homes, and that they have twenty-four hours to get their affairs in order and to pack a small suitcase of belongings to take with them. How would they feel? What would they do to prepare for their departure? Who would they contact, and what would they be forced to leave behind? Encourage students to make lists of what they would want to bring with them and to share their lists with one another in small groups. What do these lists reveal?
 
VOCABULARY
Anti-Semite, one who exhibits hostility toward people of Jewish faith
Aryan, a person conforming to the Nazi “master race” ideology; of Nordic descent, or
blond-haired and blue-eyed
Gentile, a non-Jew
ghetto, the name for the densely-populated, poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Europe
where people of Jewish descent were confined prior to their transportation to concentration camps
Haganah, Jewish paramilitary organization in the British Mandate of Palestine from
1920-1948
kibbutz, a collective living community in Israel, traditionally based around agricultural
activities
Mamusha, Polish for “Mommy”
Mossad le’Aliyah Bet, a branch of the Haganah that operated to facilitate Jewish
immigration to Palestine
Star of David, a six-pointed star symbolizing Jewish identity and Judaism
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority
zloty, Polish currency
 
BEYOND THE BOOK
1) Nuremberg Trials
Following the end of World War II, a series of military tribunals called the Nuremberg Trials and situated in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, were held by the victorious Allied Forces to prosecute prominent members of the defeated Nazi leadership. Over 200 German war crimes defendants were tried at Nuremberg. Ask students to read about the international response to the crimes committed in the course of World War II. Students may be surprised to learn that not all Nazi leaders responsible for the mass murder were able to be prosecuted. How did the international efforts to bring to justice members of the Nazi leadership attempt to satisfy the many nations involved?
2) British Mandate for Palestine
When Gertruda and Michael attempted to enter Palestine from the Exodus, they were refused entry by the British, who had legal authority to administer laws in Palestine, according to a law confirmed by the League of Nations in 1923. Ask students to research the history of British governance of Palestine. What accounts for the British refusal to allow a boat carrying over 4,000 Jewish refugees to land in Palestine? How—if at all—is the Britain’s role in Palestine’s history reflected in the current state of affairs in the Middle East? 
3) Swiss banks and World War II
Michael Stolowitzky’s efforts to reclaim his family’s assets from Swiss banks were modestly successful, but many other Holocaust survivors were not so fortunate. In 1995, the World Jewish Congress began negotiations on behalf of Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors and their heirs, who alleged that Swiss banks and the Swiss government were not being forthcoming with dormant funds in their banks belonging to victims of Nazi persecution. Ask students to research the settlement of the WJC claim and analyze other belated efforts on the part of the Swiss government to acknowledge the rights of Holocaust victims. How might these awards be as significant in terms of their symbolism as they are in terms of their recompense?
 
OTHER WORKS OF INTEREST
Life is Beautiful: Roberto Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami
Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Grauel: An Autobiography, John Stanley Grauel
The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski
Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival, Clara Kramer
Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, My Father Bleeds History, Art Spiegelman
Night, Elie Wiesel
The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945,
Wladislaw Szpilman
 
ABOUT THIS GUIDE WRITER
This guide was prepared by Julie Cooper, a writer from Bainbridge Island, Washington. A graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Washington, Julie works as a freelance writer and editor of educational materials and reading group guides.   
 
 
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