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Book Review: Mala’s Cat: A Memoir of Survival in World War II

Wednesday, 4 January 2023  | Susan Barnes

Mala’s Cat: A Memoir of Survival in World War II

By Mala Kacenberg

(New York: Pegasus Books, 2022)


Mala’s cat was originally published in 1995 with the title, Alone in the Forest, and therefore is written in an older style. The story is an autobiographical account of how Mala Kacenberg (née Szorer) survived World War 2 and she writes from the perspective she had at the time the events happened. The book was republished early in 2022 as Mala’s Cat.

Mala was born into a large observant Jewish family in Tarnogrod, Poland. Her story begins three years before the war when wild hailstorms ruined crops in her area, plunging the family into poverty. The worsening economic situation affected the whole nation and caused a rise in anti-Semitic fervour. Even before the Nazi invasion, life had become financially and religiously difficult for Mala and her family.

The Nazi invasion quickly reduced Tarnogrod to a ghetto. However, Mala, who was now 12 years old, was resourceful and resilient. She often wandered about the nearby countryside begging for food from local farms, sometimes in exchange for labour, to provide for her family. Mala’s complexion was much fairer than was usual for someone of Jewish descent. And, in the years leading up to the war, she had become fluent in Polish, unlike many Jews in her area, so she was often mistaken for being Polish. This worked in her favour.

In 1942, the Nazis shot the entire Jewish population in Tarnogrod and buried them in a mass grave. There was no longer any reason for Mala to return home. At this time, she learnt that many Polish young people were being called up to work on German farms and in hotels. Mala managed to make her way to the Labour Exchange and was able to convince them she had lost her official paperwork when the Nazis set fire to a nearby Polish town. She was assigned to a hotel, where she worked until the end of the war.

However Mala’s troubles didn’t end with the war. She found shelter with some kind-hearted people but she longed to be with her own people. Initially, she applied to travel to Palestine but when that took too long she applied to go to England. She was greatly relieved to arrive there after several more harrowing incidents. In England, she found some distant relatives who ultimately introduced her to the man who would become her husband. Like her, he was an observant Jew. The story shows God’s graciousness and his ability to provide in the direst of circumstances. This isn’t done in a didactic way, but feels unintentional.

The book contains a couple of mysteries, one being Mala’s cat. As a young child, the stray cat would follow Mala whenever she left home. When the war started, the cat would accompany Mala during her foraging trips and often behaved more like a dog, even guiding her away from danger. Later, when Mala moved to the hotel, the cat mysteriously reappeared, even though it was 20 kilometres from Tarnogrod. Some think the cat was a literary device or that it was an imaginative way of helping her cope with loneliness. Yet for Mala, the cat was real and gave her great comfort.

Another mystery was Mala’s faith in God. Jesus isn’t mentioned in the book and Mala appeared to know nothing about him. Even when she met some Polish Catholic girls at the hotel, she seemed to have no understanding that they believed in the same God. Through all her experiences, Mala maintained her faith in her Jewish understanding of God. She escaped death numerous times and believed God had protected and strengthened her. She even found reasons to be thankful and regularly prayed Jewish prayers.

Mala’s faith wasn’t based on her ability to keep the Old Testament Law. At times she ate non-kosher food to maintain the illusion that she wasn’t Jewish. Both Jesus and the Old Testament prophets criticised the Jewish people for not being committed to God’s ways, for their legalistic attitude and for their lack of compassion for those in need. None of these things were true of Mala. There were times when she put her own life at risk to help others who were suffering as much as or more than she was.

Another mystery, or perhaps this was part of her faith, was that she displayed a complete lack of intimidation in the face of possible death. There were times when Mala challenged Nazi soldiers about their cruelty and genuinely expected to be shot. She explained this by saying she was so angry about their actions that her anger overtook her fears. One of the by-products of her boldness was that it made her appear less Jewish. Generally, Jewish people were so intimidated by the Nazis that they appeared weak and spineless. This caused the soldiers to lose all respect for them and encouraged their cruelty.

Mala’s autobiography is a fascinating insight into a young girl’s determination, ingenuity and compassion for others during severe trials. The story gives us reason to consider afresh the mercy and graciousness of our God.


Susan Barnes has been involved in pastoral ministry for over 30 years as a pastor’s wife. She blogs at and has hundreds of devotional articles online and in print. She has a degree in Christian ministry and lives with her husband in central Victoria, Australia.

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