We Must Not Think of Our­selves: A Novel

  • Review
By – January 29, 2024

We Must Not Think of Our­selves is a nov­el so exquis­ite­ly writ­ten that it ele­vates tragedy to art, and beyond art, to a soul-expand­ing testament.

It is faith that ani­mates this book — the faith that life, and love, can sur­vive anni­hi­la­tion. It’s based on the sto­ry of Emanuel Ringel­blum, who began a secret project at the War­saw Ghet­to in 1941. Inter­est­ing­ly, the project’s name was Oneg Shab­bat” — the plea­sure of the Sab­bath. Its mis­sion was to record inter­views with con­fined Jews, col­lect their tes­ti­monies, archive them, and pre­serve them for pos­ter­i­ty. These sto­ries were buried in large milk cans under the doom-laden ghet­to in which few sur­vived, most hav­ing died of hunger, typhus, or trans­port to the gas cham­bers. The hid­den tes­ti­monies cap­tured the every­day life of a range of War­saw Ghet­to cit­i­zens, from chil­dren to the elder­ly, and from the ardent­ly devout to the world­ly and agnostic. 

The cen­tral char­ac­ter in the nov­el is the fic­tion­al Adam Paskow, an assim­i­lat­ed teacher of Eng­lish who’s been com­mis­sioned by Ringel­blum him­self to help with the project. Only nom­i­nal­ly Jew­ish, Adam was once mar­ried to Kasia, a woman from an influ­en­tial Pol­ish fam­i­ly. He taught Latin and Ger­man at a pres­ti­gious War­saw Lyceum, and he and Kasia rev­eled in their cozy domes­tic­i­ty. The things he took for grant­ed are heart­break­ing­ly mundane:

We bought our cof­fee at the gen­er­al store on Moko­tow Street — the nicer one — the one that always had enough sug­ar, salt, flour, paper, ink, cot­ton balls … thread, envelopes, and nail scis­sors. The one that had a tele­phone on the wall that any­one could use at any time, pro­vid­ing he or she had five groszy. A store that nev­er had a rea­son to turn me away.

Then, in Novem­ber 1940, Adam was removed from his com­fort­able apart­ment and impris­oned in the War­saw Ghet­to. Kasia died while life was still nor­mal,” and her Pol­ish Catholic father is com­plic­it in Adam’s dis­place­ment from his home and all the trea­sures in it. As an impris­oned Jew, Adam teach­es chil­dren Eng­lish in a base­ment. One is a lon­er who, in between bouts of smug­gling food, escapes to the rooftop to give his mind space to roam. Anoth­er is a girl with ringlet­ed hair who dreams of one day becom­ing a Hol­ly­wood star. Oth­er par­tic­i­pants in Adam’s world include the fam­i­lies with whom he shares a crowd­ed apart­ment. Among them is Sala Wis­coff, a woman with a boor­ish hus­band and two ram­bunc­tious sons. The Wis­coffs’ bed lies next to Adam’s own, the thin pal­lets sep­a­rat­ed only by a makeshift cur­tain. Over the course of the nov­el, as the Nazis starve out and liq­ui­date the ghet­to, Sala and Adam become friends, then lovers, then soulmates.

Yet Adam and Sala’s rela­tion­ship is, like each tes­ti­mo­ni­al col­lect­ed in a vast milk can, only one part of the whole. This book allows us to imag­ine the entire uni­verse that exist­ed with­in the War­saw Ghet­to. Chas­tened by years of suf­fer­ing, Adam reflects, I want­ed to say the bless­ings I bare­ly knew and speak Yid­dish and be with my stu­dents and their fam­i­lies and their his­to­ry and future. (This is what they meant when they called it Oneg Shab­bat. A feel­ing of com­fort and joy that I knew I would find very hard to replace.)”

Through sto­ries like We Must Not Think of Our­selves, we do find joy. The world of the ghet­to can’t be replaced, but here, it is restored. An undy­ing spir­it remains, passed word by word from author to read­er, and from one Jew­ish soul to another.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

Discussion Questions