In Nazi-occupied Warsaw, in 1943, nothing is the same, and nothing will ever be the same again. Everything has to take the saturation of fear into account: names, addresses, jobs, friends, worship, going to get something to eat. Death is everywhere, and so is the desire for life and joy.
Each of the twenty-one chapters of this novel by Andrzej Szczypiorski follows a different character: young Pawelek, who “was entering that period when love and death become a man’s inseparable companions and the thought of them never leaves him,” and his Jewish best friend, Henio, a talented mathematician who dies in the Ghetto Uprising; Sister Weronika, who “saved” Jewish children by giving them Polish names and teaching them Catholic prayers; a deeply kind math professor who dies in a summary execution; a nihilistic informer; a brutal street criminal who is a child’s only hope for survival; and a Gestapo commandant whose attachment to the Party is a banal reaction to his upbringing, without conscience or reflection.
At the novel’s center, however, is Irma Seidenman, a Jewish woman who, because of her blonde hair and blue eyes, has passed as a Polish officer’s widow until she is betrayed by an informant in 1943. The novels follows her arrest and the subsequent rescue effort that her community sets in motion, including her next-door neighbor, young Pawelek (who is in love with her), and several others. These lives are deeply connected by dignity and by courage, of course, but — as Mrs. Seidenman discovers — also just by the fact of being Polish.
The surviving characters’ stories don’t end in 1945. In each chapter, Szczypiorski describes their postwar fates, often caught up in later Polish political history, exile, nightmares, and regret. Yet each character has nuance. Of course there are villains here, but there’s also an understanding of what circumstances create villains, and how those circumstances recreate themselves if we’re not careful. Of course there are heroes, but there’s also an understanding that heroism is the work of a moment, and that a truly good person is the work of a lifetime of growth, love, and self-examination.
This book is beautiful. The prose is stunning (translated by Klara Glowczewska) and deeply moving. This was the first book I finished in 2018, and I couldn’t be happier at the way I’ve begun.