In October 1940, the Germans, with help from the Poles, crammed 400,000 Jews into the Warsaw ghetto. They sealed off the ghetto from the rest of the city with six-foot-high walls topped with barbed wire, ensuring that few could escape. If any tried, they were seized, often by Polish “betrayers,” who, for a few coins, turned them in to the Germans. Inside the ghetto, Jews lived in squalid, inhumane conditions, sometimes seven to a room. When Warsaw was liberated in 1945, there were few Jews left in the ghetto, and only 11,500 Jews in the entire city.
Gwen Edelman’s second novel combines fact and fiction to tell a compelling story about two such survivors. Returning to Poland 40 years after the war, Jascha Kroll and his wife Lilka find a new meaning in the notion that one cannot go home again. Jascha has been invited to read from his bestseller about life in the Warsaw ghetto. Lilka accompanies him.
Lilka is exhilarated and feels as though she’s truly coming home. Jascha’s not happy to be back and tells her that they have no “home” in Poland. Everything they see during their short visit proves him right. The action is simple enough. But the way Edelman tells the story makes it compelling and memorable, as she juxtaposes scenes of sex, love, and tenderness with torture, chaos, and horror.
She knows the territory well. Her first novel, War Story (2001), which also concerned the effects of World War II, won France’s Prix du Premier Roman Étranger and was a Koret Jewish Book Award Finalist.
Told as one long conversation, the novel unfolds over approximately 36 hours. During the conversation, Lilka and Jascha reminisce about life in the ghetto, where, like thousands of other Jews, they suffered deprivation and torment. There are few descriptors to indicate who is talking, or where or when the scene takes place, and their conversation tends to meander, giving the story a dreamlike effect, but also making it challenging to read. Yet, because of the concrete details, one is seldom confused as to what’s happening.
As Jascha and Lilka discuss the hardships they withstood during the war, they remember grisly scenes of Jews being herded into trains to be taken to prison camps and of Jews being forced to shovel snow with no coats, hats, or shoes. Their conversation, which begins with observations about the train ride through the snowy but beautiful Polish countryside, becomes darker and more ominous with every memory. Why did Poles allow the Germans to torture the Jews? Why did Poles conspire against Polish Jews? These questions drive every aspect of this novel: the setting, the plot, the characters, their lives. It’s the question behind Jascha’s novel, and it’s the reason why he accepted the invitation to read his story in Warsaw. It’s not that he wants an answer; he wants to confront ordinary Poles with the evil they’ve done to their own countrymen.
When, in the final section, Jascha reads from his novel about a Jewish child from the Warsaw ghetto, several people object to the description of horrific events: Some complain that Jascha lacks good manners and protest his reading; others leave. Finally, 5 people remain from an audience of 100. The few who stay excuse themselves, saying that they had been unaware of what was happening or that they, too, had suffered during the war.
Jascha accepts none of their excuses. “You can leave,” he says. “But that won’t change what happened here.”
Each paragraph in The Train to Warsaw is like a separate prose poem, driving home Edelman’s point that some evil can never be forgotten and is beyond forgiveness. She uses white space, imagery, repetition, allusive dialogue, fragmentation, disjointed conversations, and juxtaposition to underscore her effect. Indeed, the imagery and tone are reminiscent of scenes from Marguerite Duras’s film Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), whose central image of a powdery residue from the atomic bomb is similar to Edelman’s repeated mention of snow falling, a white powder covering everything. Both stories concern events from the Second World War, both achieve their effects through juxtaposition, and both possess a quiet intensity that escalates to a nightmarish horror.
The effect can be chilling, as when Lilka describes a former teacher, still young but toothless and haggard, dying from starvation. Or when she tells of her elderly grandfather walking to a Hebrew bookstore and being shot by “tourists” for sport. The most horrendous scene occurs during the 1944 ghetto uprising, when Jewish fighters burn to death while Polish couples on the other side of the wall listen to music and ride a carousel at a spring fair.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University.