Jack had always been taken with Rochelle. He used to see her around the neighborhood and wanted to ask her out, but her parents were strict and she couldn’t have said yes even if she’d wanted to. He did ask her to dance once at a school dance, but he kept stepping on her blue suede shoes, and she couldn’t get away from him fast enough. That was the closest thing they had to a date. Before long, Jack had moved away, and there was no reason to expect he’d ever see Rochelle again. But years later, he dreamed about her—a voice told him she would be coming to him soon. Three months later, there she was. They’ve hardly been apart since.
Jack and Rochelle Sutin’s story of how they fell in love would be striking and sweet on its own, but when you consider that it took place in Poland during the Holocaust, it becomes extraordinary. Jack and Rochelle both escaped the Jewish ghettos where they’d been sent with their families, and they met in the Nalibocka Forest, where Jack was then leading a small band of Jewish partisans in actions against the Germans and for their own survival. Soon, they joined with a larger group, led by Simcha Zorin, and they survived the war together in the woods.
Jack and Rochelle’s 1995 memoir, edited by their son Lawrence, makes an interesting companion to Nechama Tec’s Defiance, a comprehensive look at the Bielski Partisans, another, larger group similar to the one the Sutins were part of. This is a more intimate account that gives readers a sense of what the day-to-day struggle was like for members of these groups, what led them there, and what happened after.
Throughout the book, Jack and Rochelle take turns, sharing their individual versions of events, sometimes building on each other’s accounts, sometimes tweaking them slightly. Rochelle speaks about how she kept Jack from going on raids, then Jack says that he went on plenty. I could imagine the two of them sitting at the kitchen table, telling their story as their son took notes that were later assembled into this book. The book is at its best when the two share their story together. The first few chapters, when they were apart, were less engaging, partly because the story of the coming Nazi menace and ghetto life is one I’ve seen and read many times before, but also because the two play off each other so well in the later chapters.
Because the book focuses intently on the Sutins’ particular experiences of the war, it doesn’t really operate as a history or offer much insight into the survivor experience in general. It’s one story, and not necessarily representative of Holocaust survivors in general or the Jewish resistance in particular. Indeed, as Lawrence notes in his afterword, Holocaust survivors cannot be lumped into a single generalizable category. Jack and Rochelle themselves escaped the ghettos for different reasons—Jack was hoping to survive, while Rochelle was hoping for the swift death that would come with trying to escape, rather than being slowly worn down and walked into her own grave.
Also, because this is a first-person account, there are times when it’s probably best to realize that these are Jack and Rochelle’s perceptions, which may or may not be accurate. When Rochelle says that virtually all the Poles were happy to cooperate with the Nazis, I wondered how true that was. Were they pleased, or just not arguing against it? To someone in Rochelle’s position at the time, it would hardly matter. I just find this question of perception vs. reality helpful whenever I read a memoir.
I was pleased that the book spends a lot of time on the period immediately after the war, when the Sutins attempted to start a new life in their former home. I’ve heard references to the difficulties many Jewish people had in returning to their former homes, but it’s not something I’ve read much about. Their struggle to make their way to the American sector of Berlin, while not as harrowing as their years in the forest, was still pretty gripping.
In light of all their suffering, it seems trivial to say that this is a book about love conquering all. There was a lot that their love couldn’t conquer. And I can’t bring myself to say that their love kept them alive, because this book illustrates so clearly that survival under such circumstances has as much to do with random chance as anything else. I will say, though, that this is a book about love. Jack’s last line in the book is that he wants the people who read this book to know how much he loves Rochelle. Perhaps knowing that even in the face of violent hate there will be love is enough.