The Warsaw Anagrams: Giving Uniqueness Back to our Dead

7 February 2011

The Warsaw Anagrams: Giving Back Uniqueness to the Dead

At the start The Warsaw Anagrams, I’ve placed a quote from the novel’s main character, Erik Cohen, an elderly psychiatrist forced to move into the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw soon after the Nazi occupation of Poland: We owe uniqueness to our dead at the very least.    

Erik comes to this understanding about the debt we owe our loved ones while listening to a devastated teenaged girl whose favourite uncle has just been murdered. Choking with tears, she tells Erik that her Uncle Freddi, an aspiring screenwriter, had been working with a German film star on a script before being interned in the ghetto. Erik is greatly moved because he realizes how urgently the girl needs for him to understand that her uncle was an individual with hopes, dreams and fears. So he listens to her closely.

These considerations took on enhanced meaning for me as I wrote The Warsaw Anagrams because it is, in part, about daily life in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, a one-square-mile section of the city in which the Germans forced the Jews to live from October 1940. At its height, 450,000 persons lived there, cut off from the rest of the world by a high brick wall topped by barbed wire.

By creating this Jewish urban ‘island’, the Germans hoped to sentence its residents to oblivion – that the rest of the world would forget them. And to some extent, they achieved their goal. Even today, how many of us can talk with any depth about a person or family who lived there. How many of us know anything about their schools or the work they did?

So part of my goal in The Warsaw Anagrams was to re-create the ghetto and restore individuality to its residents – to give back to them their uniqueness. I tried to do this through my characters – through Erik and the others. Indeed, I hope that when readers come to know their frailties and talents, their defeats and triumphs, they will begin to regard them as real people. I want those who pick up my novel to follow Erik on the heroic – and dangerous – journey he makes. I want people to know what a remarkable person he is.
In The Warsaw Anagrams, Erik Cohen becomes one of the many millions persecuted by the Nazis, but he is also much more than that. He is a father trying to make amends for having neglected his daughter when she was a child. He is a hardworking therapist and faithful friend. He’s grumpy when sleepy, given to boisterous laughter and a fan of the Marx Brothers and jazz. He demonstrates astounding courage at a time when he might easily give in to despair. And at his hardest times, he likes to sit at his bedroom window, puff away on his pipe and look up at the stars. He likes to imagine that all of nature is on the side of the Jews in their fight for survival.

Michael Fieni