(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mendel, a village watchmaker, is one of the hundreds of thousands of stragglers missing from the Red Army. He meets Leonid, another Russian Jew, behind the German lines. Together, they hide from the Germans and the peasants. From another straggler, Mendel and Leonid learn of the bands of partisans hidden in the woods. Mendel, tired of being a missing person living like a wolf, decides to join a band. The pair make their way to Novoselki, a village of armed Jews in the midst of the Polessia marshes.

Despite its members’ being weak and poorly armed, the hidden settlement is the safest place for Jews who have escaped from ghettos and German labor camps. The camp leader, Dov, an older man, does his best to keep the camp fed and guarded while carrying out acts of sabotage. In Novoselki, Mendel meets a passionate Zionist woman named Line and a clever and strong former actor named Pavel.

During the harsh winter, Dov, who by now considers Mendel his lieutenant, receives a message from the legendary Jewish partisan leader Gedaleh, who belongs to a strong and well-organized band. He invites Dov’s participation in a mission, and, feeling it is important to show the Russians that the Jews will fight the Germans, Dov agrees. The engagement is not a success, and German reprisal with machine guns and tanks wipes out most of the Novoselki band.

Dov, Mendel, Leonid, Line, and Pavel set off to locate Ulybin, the chief of Gedaleh’s band, to continue to fight their partisan war. In Ulybin’s prosperous, well-organized camp, Mendel learns more about Gedaleh, who is away on a mission. Gedaleh’s life was saved by his violin, which stopped a bullet. It appears that there was a quarrel between Ulybin and Gedaleh over accepting Jews in the band.

While they wait for orders in the camp, they experience great hunger and homesickness. The Russians’ longing for home is not unreasonable, for their homes still exist, but for the Jews, regret for their destroyed villages and dead families is complete despair, and they wonder for what future they are fighting.

Because of an old knee wound, Dov is taken by plane to a hospital in Russia. The others continue to wait....

(The entire section is 899 words.)