After writing The Devil's Arithmetic, author Jane Yolen revisited the topic of the Holocaust in another novel: Briar Rose. After watching the documentary film Shoah, which focused on the concentration camp Chelmno, and talking to her editor about the stories of survivors there, she began work on the novel.
In Briar Rose Yolen again presents a link between the present and the past as she did in The Devil's Arithmetic. This time Yolen ties the story to the German fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, sometimes called Briar Rose. Following her grandmother's death in the present, Becca Berlin recalls the story of Sleeping Beauty, which her grandmother, Gemma, told her and her sisters many times. She begins to suspect that the story has much greater significance than she may have originally thought. Becca learns that her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and that Gemma was imprisoned at Chelmno in Poland. Becca travels to Poland to visit Chelmno and learns of a link between her grandmother and a man named Josef Potocki. Becca sets out to find Josef and learn more about her grandmother's experiences in Chelmno.
Upon finding Josef, Becca learns his story. Josef too was a target during the Holocaust due to his homosexuality. After hearing of the atrocities of the Holocaust, Josef joined a resistance group to rescue the victims. The Nazi method of extermination of thousands of victims was to load them onto trucks and pump the exhaust fumes back into truck, thereby gassing them to death. The truck would then arrive at a mass grave site where the bodies would be disposed of. Josef came across Gemma at one of these sites and noticed she was still breathing faintly. Using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation he was able to save her life. Gemma then escaped with Josef to join the resistance. She met another man and married him before she became pregnant. He and the other partisan fighters were killed by the Nazis but Gemma managed to escape to the United States. She never told anyone in her family the real story but re-fashioned it as a fairy tale in which a princess is awoken from a deadly sleep by a prince. After learning of the story Becca returns to the United States and tells her family what she has learned.
Yolen divided the story chapters between the fairy tale story told by Gemma and the story of Becca's discovery of the truth. This parallel structure helps tie the divided past and present together while allowing Yolen to continue the familiar theme of the importance of one's heritage and past as she does in The Devil's Arithmetic. This novel differs from The Devil's Arithmetic in that Yolen chose to focus on Polish citizens who were killed during the Holocaust instead of focusing on the Jewish experience.