The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide To The Perished City

Monumental record of devastating loss


By Barbara Engelking & Jacek Leociak
Yale University Press £40

The devil, they say, is in the detail. This extraordinary book bears out the epithet. Its 906 pages form a vastly detailed portrait of Jews in the ghetto, struggling for survival under the radical evil of Nazi occupation. It is a book displaying deep scholarship, but also intense emotion.

The Warsaw Ghetto is a plain and indisputable title. The subtitle, A Guide to the Perished City, is more suggestive and poetic. The ghetto was not, after all, a city. It was a small — hideously small, given how many were crammed into it — part of the city. It didn’t so much perish as get murdered, yet that epithet — “perished city”— is richly evocative of a phenomenon that is both haunting and haunted.

The book’s narrative is similarly dualistic: part scholarship, part personal response. The intellectual angle of approach derives from the disciplines of psychology, history and literary criticism.

Engelking and Leociak intend their book to be encyclopaedic. Chapters are divided into sections covering all the relevant topics. The chapter on culture and entertainment, for example, has sections on Literary Life, Musical Life, Theatrical Life, Humour and more. Overall, the book offers a superb collection of short, related essays.

The inclusion of numerous detailed, coloured maps adds another dimension, an A to Z of cramped, overcrowded suffering arranged by topic: Communication; Offices, Trade; Social Life and Uprising. Three additional fold-out maps show the state of the ghetto before and after the Great Liquidation — and what was left of it in 2001 (the year of the original Polish edition).

The terrible, terrifying dilemmas of those trying to survive and those trying to help are etched on almost every page. “I understood more and more clearly,” a doctor working in the ghetto is quoted as saying, “that you had to bring help right up to the very end, but first you had to be made of stone.”

The section on humour includes the tragic-comic figure of Abraham Rubinstajn, the “jester of the ghetto”. Described as “madman or joker, wit or cynic”, he entertained people in the streets with jokes and pranks that might have been mad, or perhaps a subtly sane response to an evil situation.

When he was hungry, he stood outside shops shouting, “Down with Hitler! Down with the German murderers!”, certain that the frightened people inside would rush out with food to shut him up.

Rubinstajn is supposed to have gone voluntarily to the Umschlagplatz for deportation, laughing as he climbed aboard the train.

A photo of him (above), ragged, hands on hips, crooked grin, surrounded by a laughing crowd, offers a heart-breaking image, an emblem of the ghetto.

It shows us something unfathomable, tortured, tragic, brave and doomed; a community aching to live, under the yoke of those who had the wish, the means, the power and the time to murder every last one of them.

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