I always find it particularly difficult to pick up a book about war, any war, but especially the Second World War. Yet after having read a few of Richard Zimler's other novels, opening his latest, The Warsaw Anagrams, I was hoping that if I followed him into the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto, I would emerge with a flicker of hope in my heart despite everything I was bound to witness. That was the gift of his other novels about the persecution of Jews around the world and throughout history: that not all is lost when people are prepared to hold on to the core of their humanity, even when fighting against all odds.
I was not disappointed.
The Warsaw Anagrams opens with Erik Cohen's return to the ghetto as an ibbur (Hebrew for ghost) and his encounter with Heniek Corben, a man who unlike all others can see and hear Erik, and most importantly, is eager to assist him in his most important task: remembering. It is to Heniek that Erik, haunted by his memories, entrust the story which forms the centre of the novel. Their connection is unique and can only be understood in the light of the survival strategies many people developed not only during, but also after the war, when to be alive meant having to deal with the crushing weight of guilt, which so many survivors experienced.
In late 1940 the Nazis created the largest ghetto in their occupied territories enclosing 400 000 Jews into an impossibly small area of the Polish capital. It was only the beginning of one of the most horrific crimes in history. Most of the ghetto inhabitants either starved to death or succumbed to illnesses in the ghetto, or were deported and murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp, or lost their lives during the Uprising of 1943 before the ghetto was finally razed to the ground.
Zimler sets his story before the beginning of the deportations. Erik Benjamin Cohen, an aging psychiatrist, tries to survive with his niece Stefa and her young son Adam in a small flat they share in the ghetto. Each one of them attempts to carve out a tiny existence for themselves and to preserve some sense of dignity in the pitiless conditions around them. To protect the little they have left, as in an anagram, they have to rearrange "things to fit the new world we're living in." A special bond develops between Erik and his talented, beautiful great-nephew. When the boy disappears and is found murdered and mutilated one day, the remains of the little family are irrevocably shattered to pieces.
"Do you know what it's like to see a mutilated nine-year-old?" Erik records. "You realize that anything can happen: the sun may blacken and die before your eyes; a crack may open in the earth and swallow the street... Each heartbeat seems proof that all you see and feel is improbable to be anything but a dream."
Erik believes that Adam's death is linked to the fate of all Jews. Another child's mutilated body is found in the days following the murder. With the help of his friends inside and outside the ghetto Erik decides that he will risk everything and won't rest until he finds the people responsible for the children's gruesome deaths.
The Warsaw Anagrams is an unusual book. It is not only a very vividly recreated record of the German occupation and one of its most evil manifestations, but it is also a murder mystery which focuses all the horrors of war on the death of one little boy without diminishing the suffering of millions.
As always, Zimler captures human psychology and emotions with an honesty which is striking and highly revealing. He portrays his characters with their multifaceted and conflicted natures which allows his readers to feel their pain and sorrow, but also to keep up hope against all hope that there is a reason to continue - even if it is only to bear witness as an ibbur. Often, there is little more a writer can do. And Zimler does it with a compassion and understanding which pays worthy tribute to our dead.
The Warsaw Anagrams
by Richard Zimler
London: Corsair, 2011
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