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The Jews and the Second World War: A Reading List

Friday, April 25, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Gwen Edelman wrote about building a walled ghetto in the middle of a city and a recent visit to Warsaw. Her most recent novel, The Train to Warsaw (Grove Press), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I started reading about the fate of the Jews during the Second World War when I was eleven. No one I knew ever mentioned the subject, but I just became obsessed and have continued to read about it ever since. 

One reading experience I particularly remember is "Fragments" by Benjamin Wilkomirski. Because I had already read so many memoirs by Jews about their experiences during the war, I immediately thought something was wrong. All the memoirs I had read before were characterized by very clear recall of details, but this memoir instead was vague and floating. While I thought it was a good book, something just didn't ring true.  Offering him the benefit of the doubt, I reminded myself that Wilkomirski was only two years old during the Holocaust and that his memories might be floating in gauze like this because of his young age. I had never read a memoir by someone that young. But, as you probably know, it turned out he had invented the whole thing. Unfortunately, I was not surprised at all. Rather, I was only surprised that he had not called it a novel. And a very good and imaginative one, too.

Here is a list of ten books which are, for me, some of the most powerful and most meaningful books concerning (in most, but not all cases) the fate of the Jews during the Second World War:

Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny
A portrait of Franz Stangel, commandant of Treblinka, based on extensive interviews by one of the outstanding journalists of our time.

Kaputt: A Novel by Curzio Malaparte
A stingingly irreverent, cruel, and brilliant look at the war in some of the places where Malaparte, a diplomat, spent those years: Russia, Poland, Finland, Romania.

The Skin: A Novel by Curzio Malaparte
The tragic and corrupt carnival of life in Naples from 1943 until the end of the war.

Life and Fate: A Novel by Vasily Grossman
An extraordinary and epic novel with a huge cast of Russian and German characters centered around the battle of Stalingrad. One of the
great novels of the twentieth century.

The General of the Dead Army: A Novel by Ismail Kadare
A brilliant novel by one of the greatest contemporary writers. Set in Albania 20 years after the war, the story follows an Italian general and an Italian priest to Albania where they are to retrieve and repatriate the bones of Italian soldiers who died during the Italian occupation of Albania.

Mr. Sammler's Planet: A Novel by Saul Bellow
Far-ranging meditations by a Holocaust survivor now living in New York.

History: A Novel by Elsa Morante
One afternoon in 1941 in Rome, an Italian woman is raped by a German soldier and gives birth to a boy. The story of this strange boy and his older brother in wartime Rome, and the woman's determination that her two boys survive is the drama of ordinary people caught up in a horrific war with which they they had nothing to do.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
In which Levi, himself a chemist, discovers that a German chemist with whom he has been corresponding and with whom he has placed an order, had been the chief of a laboratory in Auschwitz where Levi himself had been a prisoner.

The Holocaust Kingdom by Alexander Donat
One of the best non-fiction accounts of day-to-day existence during the Holocaust. Donat and his wife and child were in the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his wife were later deported to nine different death camps.

Words To Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto edited by Michal Grynberg
A collective memoir by many voices of experiences of the Warsaw Ghetto. Extremely powerful and immediate accounts.

Gwen Edelman’s first novel, War Story, was translated into eight languages, won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France, and was a Koret Jewish Book Award finalist. Her most recent novel, The Train to Warsaw(Grove Press), is now available.

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A Ghetto in the Middle of a City

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | Permalink

Yesterday, Gwen Edelman wrote about a recent visit to Warsaw. Her most recent novel, The Train to Warsaw (Grove Press), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Central Park, in the middle of the city of New York, is 843 acres. The Warsaw Ghetto, in the middle of the city of Warsaw, was 832 acres.

One day you are walking down Fifth Avenue. You see stone masons slathering mortar on red bricks. A wall is going up. Around Central Park? How strange. There's never been a wall around Central Park before. You ask one of the masons why they're building a wall. He shrugs. He's been told to build it. That's all. He doesn't know what it's for. Another mason nearby says the same. What could it be for? To keep whom in and whom out? It's all exceedingly strange.

This has not happened in New York City. But it did happen in Warsaw in November of 1940. From one day to the next, a six foot high red brick wall began to go up around the poorest part of the city. Several weeks later, signs appeared all over Warsaw. Jews were to move to the enclosed space behind the walls within two weeks, under pain of death. Jews from all walks of life were suddenly uprooted and forced to move to the poorest, most dilapidated part of town. In the space of a few weeks, they had to find an apartment, pack up all their worldly belongings on carts and wagons, and move into their new quarters where they found themselves squeezed into tenement apartments with other families. In the beginning there were visitors. Non-Jews going to say goodbye to friends, relatives, employers...

Soon the pieces of the mysterious walls were connected. There were twenty-three gates with armed guards at each one. And then the gates closed. In the middle of the city, a new universe came into being, shut off from the old. Inside there was no food. Because the caloric allotment for Jews was 86 calories a day, the smuggling between the two sides of the wall began immediately. The guards were paid off, the Poles on the "Aryan side" were paid. And the business of surviving began.

There are no apartment buildings and no streets in Central Park. But imagine that there were. Imagine that inside Central Park, there are only Jews. Invisible behind the walls. The life of the city goes on all around the walls. And inside? What is happening? You are walking down Fifth Avenue near the six foot high wall. As you pass one of the gates, you see Jewish laborers being marched out to work outside the ghetto. From your side of the wall you can see them throwing food and goods over the wall. You can see them burrowing through holes that have been carved out beneath the wall and in the middle of the wall. The smuggling is never ending—both from the ghetto side and the "Aryan side." Bags of kasha and potatoes and sugar are thrown into the ghetto. Leather goods and textiles are thrown back. Contraband is brought through the gates in wagons or by smugglers, many of them children.

You can see them shooting Jews at the gate, shooting at Jews attempting to scale the wall. From inside you hear gunshots, shouts, screams. A reign of terror. And you can hear it, you can smell it. Another universe is in motion. The shooting, the screaming, the stench of blood and filth and corpses. The starvation. The trains that leave several times a day packed with Jews headed for Treblinka... On the other side of the wall, there's a war going on. It's not exactly peacetime outside the ghetto. But this is another world. It's not far away, it's not on the outskirts of town. It's a walled kingdom of death right in the midst of the city.

This wasn't Central Park, of course. This was Warsaw in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943...

You cannot be oblivious to what's going on inside those walls. Or can you?

Gwen Edelman’s first novel, War Story, was translated into eight languages, won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France, and was a Koret Jewish Book Award finalist. Her most recent novel, The Train to Warsaw (Grove Press), is now available. Check back here tomorrow to hear more from Gwen.

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In My Characters' Shoes

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | Permalink

Gwen Edelman’s first novel, War Story, was translated into eight languages, won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France, and was a Koret Jewish Book Award finalist. Her most recent novel, The Train to Warsaw (Grove Press), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One September afternoon I took the train from Berlin to Warsaw, as my characters had done. I wanted to see what they had seen. For the five and a half hours of that train ride I saw nothing but endless miles of birches, pines, fields... It was a warm and sunny day. The blue sky was cloudless. The sunlight glinted on the fields and stippled the birches with light. For my novel The Train to Warsaw, I would have to imagine those same birches and pines and fields in the dead of winter, coat them with snow and frost and turn the sky white.

I had an appointment to meet a journalist from one of the major Warsaw newspapers. He had suggested we meet in a tiny park near Gryzbowska St., a street that had once been inside the ghetto. And so I set off from my hotel to meet him.

There is nothing left of the former ghetto. In the more than 800 acres that once encompassed the ghetto, white Soviet realist style apartment buildings now cover block after block. Of the apartment buildings, the shops, the synagogues from before the war (with the exception of the Nozyk Synagogue), nothing remains. On one block several red brick buildings from before the war are still standing; in the courtyard of an apartment building a piece of the red brick ghetto wall still exists. One or two other buildings are still there. But that is all. The ghetto was burned to the ground by the Nazis during the Ghetto Uprising of April 1943.

And of the former life that once hummed in this corner of the earth, nothing remains.

The journalist and I sat down on a small stone bench. Scattered around the pocket park, several mothers sat rocking baby carriages beneath a sunny sky. There was no one else. The journalist and I talked quietly. All of a sudden I heard, coming from the left, the tramping of boots on cobblestone. The sound grew louder. Five SS men in uniform, smoking, armed, came into view. They didn't look like extras in a film; in fact there were no cameras or crew anywhere. The uniforms looked lived-in, the boots were creased with wear. I thought I was hallucinating. I had done so much research on the Warsaw Ghetto that I had begun to see visions. I turned to the journalist. Are those SS men? I asked, incredulous. Absolutely, he replied.

Now I heard the tramping of boots coming from the right. I turned my head and saw a straggling group of partisans coming toward us, walking single file. One had his head bandaged, all wore outfits that were ragged and torn. One had a bloodied shirt sleeve, all had tin cups attached to their belts. They too were armed. The Polish Home Army? I whispered. Absolutely, he informed me. An SS man had placed a straw basket on the ground. Backs bent, a look of resignation on their faces, each one came up to the SS man and dropped his weapon in the basket.The last man shook the hand of the SS man, who dropped his cigarette and ground it out with the toe of his leather boot. They turned and walked off.

What just happened? I asked the journalist. The Polish Home Army has just surrendered to the SS, he informed me. What? I asked in disbelief. Every year on the same date, in the same place, at the same time, the Polish Home Army surrenders to the SS. But why? I asked. Why in the world would they re-enact their surrender of all things? He shrugged. He had no answer.

This part of town was so quiet now, the streets nearly deserted. Once there had been an ungodly din here. Crowds of up to 500,000 individuals surging through the streets, a madhouse swarming with people, the pavement and streets clogged with the dying and dead. Then there had been no peace, only terror. Everyone in a mad rush, running, pushing forward against the crowds. Back then to stop was to die, to slow down was to be shot or dragged off.

Now a small boy pushed a scooter beneath a soft blue sky, a woman re-tied the strings of a baby's bonnet. Now the place was so peaceful you could hear the sound of leaves softly blown by the wind. How was I to imagine what had once taken place here?

Check back here tomorrow to hear more from Gwen Edeleman.

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