If Not Now, When? chronicles the exploits, sufferings, fears, and hopes of a band of Jewish partisans behind enemy lines in Russia and Poland. Its twelve chapters run in chronological sequences, the first covering July, 1943, and the last July and August, 1945.
The wife, home, and village of Mendel, the principal character, have been wiped out by the Nazis, and Mendel himself has become separated from his frontline Red Army regiment in German-occupied territory. He is joined by Leonid, a Red Army soldier not yet twenty years old, who has escaped from a concentration camp. The two men tramp across country, cold, hungry, and continually on the alert. Mendel is determined to join a partisan group, and Leonid, whose experiences have enclosed him in a wall of silent bitterness, reluctantly follows. After being rejected by the first partisan group they contact because they are Jews, the two finally join a Jewish partisan unit in a ruined abbey surrounded by marshland, and Leonid finds new strength and hope, thanks to a young woman and fighter named Emmeline, known to everyone as “Line.” To impress her, Leonid unexpectedly takes the lead in a sabotage mission, but he is disappointed when it is not completely successful.
At this point, the legendary violin-playing Jewish partisan leader, Gedaleh, who is temporarily working with a crack Russian group under the leadership of Ulyubin, invites the small Jewish group to join an ambush on a hunting party which includes important German officers. Gedaleh is anxious to prove to his highly trained non-Jewish comrades that Jews can match both their courage and their military skill. Unfortunately, the ambush goes tragically wrong, and the Germans attack the partisan’s abbey retreat. Mendel, Leonid, and Line are among the few survivors.
Unwilling to stop fighting, the three companions manage to find and join Ulyubin’s camp, which is hidden in a dense forest. They are amazed by its size, military organization, and discipline yet are disappointed to find that Gedaleh is away on a mission. Following a particularly daring sabotage exploit, they learn that the Germans are about to attack the camp. The unit is...
(The entire section is 895 words.)