The Chimney Tree

Helaine G. Helmreich, Author
Helaine G. Helmreich, Author University Press of Colorado $24.95 (296p) ISBN 978-0-87081-562-1
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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In this straightforward, somewhat sentimental coming-of-age tale, a young woman and her family of Hasidic Jews in a village in pre-WWII Poland witness the destruction of their way of life with the Nazi onslaught. In 1935, Breindel Rutner, daughter of the Krovnitz rebbe, is 18 and in no hurry to accept the marriage matches planned for her. Her deeply religious father decries her flirtation with a gentile artist, whose nude drawing of her scandalizes the village, and she is sent away to marry a mad scholar in a faraway town. Her flight to Warsaw (during which she takes her first car ride) is the first of Breindel's many serendipitous escapes from adversity. In Warsaw, Breindel works in a bookstore and eventually marries the owner, a kind and devoted widower. When the military conflict begins, the couple return to her family in Krovnitz, an area of east Poland invaded first by the Russians, then by the Germans. Her family and all other Jews in the village are brutally murdered, but pregnant Breindel miraculously escapes the mass slaughter and manages to survive and give birth to a daughter, thanks to the kindness of two aged peasants. In her hasty summing up of events and characters' fates after the war, Helmreich relies on coincidence and improbability. Many of her characters are simplistically good or bad, as in a fairy tale, but Helmreich writes convincingly about the details of Hasidism. In her sensitive presentation, the Old World culture and religion came to near extinction like the local ""chimney tree,"" split by lightning and hollowed out, so that ""a person could stand inside it and look straight up at the sky."" (June)
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