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, 19421943

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Gwen Edel­man’s first nov­el, War Sto­ry, was trans­lat­ed into eight lan­guages, won the Prix du Pre­mier Roman Etranger in France, and was Koret Jew­ish Book Award final­ist. She lived for many years in Paris and now lives in New York.While work­ing on The Train to War­saw, Gwen walked the entire for­mer War­saw Ghet­to: north to south, east to west.