Briar Rose Study Guide

Briar Rose

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

In the young adult novel Briar Rose, the well-known tale of Sleeping Beauty is set against the backdrop of WWII, as journalist Becca tells the story of how her grandmother Gemma, a Holocaust survivor, would share her memories by telling variations of the classic fairy tale. When Becca goes to Europe herself to discover the true story, her discoveries make real the immense suffering that her grandmother and others who were persecuted under the Nazi regime suffered.

The book is divided into two parts, the "home", and the "castle". The ending is part of the "home" section, returning after the castle.

The story is based around the German fairy tale of Briar Rose ( Sleeping Beauty ) which is told by "Gemma", an elderly woman, to her three granddaughters. She tells this to the children almost all the time and it is the only bedtime story she ever tells. The times when "Gemma" tells the story are flashbacks and alternate between the present-day story.


In the present day, Gemma's Jewish family is living somewhere outside a city in Massachusetts. After her grandmother's death, Rebecca Berlin, the youngest of her three granddaughters (referred to as Becca in the novel) begins to believe that there is some meaning behind the bedtime story that her grandmother told to them hundreds of times. She consults Stan, a good friend and journalist who works for an "alternative" newspaper and uncovers historical facts.

She discovers that her grandmother was actually a survivor of the Holocaust who was persecuted for her Jewish origins, and sent to Chełmno extermination camp to be executed. She decides to visit Chełmno and discovers a link with a man by the name of Josef Potocki in Poland. Becca sets off for Poland to find the identity and the life of her grandmother.

The Castle - Josef's story

In Poland, Josef tells his life story and his meeting with Gemma. In the book, his story is told in the "castle" section. He was a target of the Holocaust due to his homosexuality, and became a fugitive, during which time he met many different people, mainly partisans, mainly in Germany. He had heard stories of torture and extermination camps and joined an underground group set out to rescue victims. This leads him to Chełmno (called Kulmhof by the Germans), where he witnesses the gassing to death of numerous people. The people are brought to the camp and then packed into trucks. The trucks drive away, with their exhaust funnelled into the passenger hold. By the time the trucks arrive at their destination, a mass grave, all of the people it was carrying have been gassed to death by the truck exhaust. The people are then dumped into the grave. When the bodies are dumped one of the partisans, named The Avenger notices that a woman with red hair (Gemma) is still alive and faintly breathing. Josef revives her through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which the woman, (who is later called KSIĘŻNICZKA, which means 'princess' in Polish) refers to in her fairy tale as "the kiss of life". In reality, during this period of time, 320,000 were killed in Chelmno via the method of gassing them in trucks.

Later, she hid in the forest with Polish partisans, fighting the Nazis, and married The Avenger, whom Josef was also in love with. She became pregnant by him shortly after their marriage. Then he, along with almost all of the other partisans, were killed by the Nazis. She escaped and was brought safely to the United States. She never told a soul about these experiences, rather dealing with the trauma by refashioning them in her mind into the form of a familiar fairytale about an evil witch, a princess rendered unconscious who is then revived by a handsome prince, and a happy ending.

'Home Again'

The final part of the book is simply a conclusion where Becca returns to the U.S. to tell Stan and her family about what she discovered. At the airport, Stan is there to pick her up. He kisses her, and says "We'll get to our happily ever after eventually".

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