Hansel and Gretel tale has witches, forest and ovens and Holocaust setting

It begins with a chase that lasts the entire length of the novel. Pursued by vicious German motorcyclists and dogs, two Jewish children are hidden by their father and stepmother in hopes that they might reunite after they elude the Germans.

Thus begins Louise Murphy’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, to World War II. There’s a witch, an oven, breadcrumbs and a real, real bad guy.

But this tale, set during the Holocaust, isn’t bedtime reading for children. It’s a compelling read set in a Polish hamlet where all the Jews have already been taken and murdered at nearby Auschwitz.

The action centers on a Gypsy woman’s attempts to hide the two children’s Jewish identity from the rest of the small town, which is being overseen by a grizzled German soldier who longs for a real military assignment on the Eastern front.

Meanwhile, the children’s father and stepmother connect in the forest with a local resistance unit that gradually closes in on the village.

After getting through early dialogue that seemed implausible for hungry, cold and exhausted refugees to utter, the need to find out if the family is reunited is difficult to resist.

The ending is perhaps the most unbelievable part of the book, but, hey, this is supposed to be a fairy tale.

Murphy’s three years of research at San Francisco’s Holocaust Library for this book, her second, paid off. The details of life in the village are fascinating, such as the general’s order forcing three female Polish villagers to clean his office with the clothes off their backs.

It’s these painful incidents that vividly re-create some of the depravations Jews, Gypsies and ordinary Poles must have gone through during the war that particularly stick in the mind months after reading the book.

Today, one can visit the gas chamber at Auschwitz or read Elie Weisel’s “Night,” but reading parts of this novel might be no less difficult. Just like each life lost, each artistic interpretation of that loss is different. For that honesty, Murphy should be lauded.

Her efforts, moreover, are noteworthy because she writes about the heroism and tragedy of characters that usually play lesser roles in much of the previous Holocaust writing. Women, in particular, are important — from the tough-as-nails stepmother to Magda, the old Gypsy woman who risks all to save the children.

Even through the iniquity displayed by a psychopathic German SS official in the book, Murphy manages to demystify what is oftentimes nothing more than a blanket label of Nazi evil.

Much of the time, people apply that label without understanding more than a few of the individual acts that contributed to the Germans’ collective shame. And this SS character’s acts are truly abhorrent in a sick and twisted way. But, just as Ralph Fiennes’ role in “Schindler’s List” was an occasionally conflicted Nazi commander, most of the German characters in the book are flawed humans rather than paradigms of wickedness.

Above all, the book shows that many Jews, whether they were killed in the gas chambers or survived the Holocaust, displayed acts of bravery in their daily lives.

And since there are precious few example of revolt during that time, the fictional ones described in “The True Story of Hansel and Gretel” ring true.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel,” by Louise Murphy (320 pages, Penguin, $13).