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BOOK REVIEW : A Tribute to Rescuers of Jewish Families : THE TREE STILL STANDS by Mae Briskin . Norton, $17.95, 256 pages


Secure and content in their spacious Warsaw house, the Levy children are astonished when their father abruptly hires a French teacher and insists that the entire family learn the language.

The year is 1936, and there have been a few anti-Semitic incidents--the sort regarded by optimists as nothing more than symptoms of the worldwide economic depression. Uneasy German Jews are moving to Poland, an unprecedented phenomenon interpreted as a sure sign that Warsaw will continue to be a haven. Though Joseph Levy disagrees, he defers to his wife and his mother and remains in the city for three crucial years.

Told in the first person by Ruth Levy, the fourth of the five Levy children, Mae Briskin's "The Tree Still Stands" is an uncommonly matter-of-fact novel that recounts the ensuing journey, beginning with the first heady months of novelty and excitement in Paris, a brief period of grace when the family can still maintain an illusion of normalcy.

After the fall of France, the pretense of normal life collapses and the Levys flee south to Lyon, hoping to cross from there into Switzerland. Thereafter, each week brings a new danger and a new address, until finally there is continual peril and no address at all.

By 1942, the temporary hiding places have culminated in residence forcee, a euphemism for house arrest, though the conditions in Nice are deceptively benign. Under nominal and haphazard Italian control, Nice is limbo, a precarious way station between true freedom and the hell of the camps.

As refugees in Nice are finally being rounded up and delivered to the Nazis, the family succeeds in crossing the Alps. The ordeal ends not in the presumed safety of Switzerland, but in the chaos of a defeated and impoverished Florence.

Played out against this stark background, the story of the Levys becomes a series of interlocking vignettes recalled by the child whose maturity is accelerated by terror and annealed by anguish.

By the age of 14, Ruth has become an apprentice partisan, drawing maps of the city and sketches of friends and enemies for the Italian couple who agree to hide her. By then, her family is concealed throughout the city and countryside, unable to communicate with one another. The mother and grandmother are hidden in a convent; when these sanctuaries are raided, they are moved to a space behind a hastily built false wall in an attic. The Levy brothers have scattered--the eldest fighting with the Resistance, the youngest child (born in flight) handed over to an Italian family for safekeeping in one of the most wrenchingly affecting scenes in the book.

Harrowing as these events are, the suffering is mitigated by the selfless courage of the Italians who help the Levys and other refugee families. The novel becomes a tribute to the actual heroes named by the author in the dedication and epilogue. There are dozens of these saviors: Jews and Gentiles, aristocrats and peasants, the reluctant and the eager, the reckless and the prudent--a random assortment of people with only their nerve and their humanity in common.

Mae Briskin began to research her subject after her curiosity was aroused by a brief newspaper reference to Italian clergy and laity who had participated in these wartime rescues. She learned Italian and traveled to Italy to interview the rapidly diminishing band of the righteous and the brave. (This investigation also inspired four of the remarkable stories in Briskin's award-winning collection of short fiction, "A Boy Like Astrid's Mother.")

But Briskin's tales are more than fictionalized history. Though her fact and invention occasionally threaten to separate, Ruth Levy's vitality provides the cohesion that effectively transforms her from narrator to heroine, her story from documentary to literature.

Next: Carolyn See reviews "Circle of Friends" by Maeve Binchy (Delacorte Press).

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