509: Truth about the Warsaw Ghetto in All the Tiny Details of Real Life

All this week, we’ve been grappling with the question: How do we find spiritual truth—when “history” keeps changing on us?
    We’ve taken you to controversial movies like “District 9” and “Inglourious Basterds.” We’ve shared an intriguing new list of the personal likes and dislikes of the Prophet Muhammad. We’ve even reported on the new book, “Paul Was Not a Jew.”
    And, today? Today, we want to celebrate a landmark in historical publishing: a massive new book called, “The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City.”

    What’s so fascinating about Warsaw in the midst of the Holocaust?
    In many ways Warsaw is emblematic of the utter devastation of Jewish communities in eastern Europe. That’s the vision of Warsaw we see in Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning movie, “The Pianist.”
    But the biggest reason is: Jews fought back there in ways the world noticed. They fought in other places during the Holocaust—but Warsaw is the story celebrated in popular novels and in Israel as well. Even in recent years, tour groups taking a pro-Israel journey around the country stop at the famous Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz with memorials and museum exhibits all named after Mordechaj Anieliwicz. He was one of the heroic firebrands of the ghetto uprising.
    If this is all new to you today, I checked with a number of library-related sites recommending books about Warsaw. Among the titles recommended repeatedly are “The Wall,” by John Hersey, “Mila 18,” by Leon Uris. Both were my own personal entry points, many years ago, to this deeply moving story. Also popular are “Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” by Israel Gutman, and “Milkweed,” by Jerry Spinelli for younger readers.

    Now, however, anyone who’s serious about exploring this story—teachers, students, families and friends of survivors and history buffs of this era—will want to ante up for this 936-page definitive book about the Warsaw ghetto.
    The book includes 250 black-and-white photographs plus three fascinating fold-out maps that show various stages of this neighborhood that transfixed the world’s attention. (One of the maps is folded out on the table behind the open book in the photograph at the top of today’s review.)
    This certainly is not a novel. It’s not even especially gripping prose.
    So, why do we need to open this massive work?
    Because it reopens the world of these people to us in stirring new ways. If we know the basic story and the ruthless extermination of people in shipments from the ghetto, then exploring this book brings the people themselves back to life. Reading through “The Warsaw Ghetto” is like standing in that enormous chamber in the Washington D.C. Holocaust memorial and gazing upon hundreds of portraits of men, women and children from one particular community—wiped out. It takes your breath away to realize the stakes in genocide.

    Here’s an example: Look at the photograph below …

    The photograph shows a street scene early in the ghetto’s life where carts full of books congregated and people could swap reading material. As we think of the short-hand story of the ghetto, we barely think about the intellectual life that continued there. This new volume has extensive sections listing concerts held in Warsaw and even books and pamphlets produced by an underground press that sprang up.
    One appendix lists 500 known shops that operated in the ghetto, although there certainly were far more than that. There were at least 1,500 food shops alone in the early peak of ghetto life.
    Here’s an excerpt from the section on the rich culture of food carts:
    (Women are selling latkes, warm potato pancakes here.) There is no shortage of customers. Two paces farther on there is a different trade. They are selling … boiled broad beans; in the gateway you can even get a plate of soup standing up, and nimble boys with boxes offer anyone “delicatessen” in the form of shortbread biscuits, juicy pieces of cake, or poppy-seed cake for dessert
    From glass-fronted display cases, soft butter biscuits, anemic gold rusks, and other bakers’ delights look out and invite you to try them. You can easily eat them, especially since alongside there is a row of round soda water containers “straight from the ice” to wash them down, and the tempting colors of thin bottles of kvass and lemonade, or containers with ice-cream in pieces of ice, simply demanding to be eaten.

    To appreciate the precious nature of human life, these are the details we need to know. Thank you to the two Holocaust researchers—Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak—whose painstaking work gives us this tragically lost world between two covers.

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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