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The Warsaw Anagrams
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Richard gives an overview of the book:

Warsaw, 1941--an exhausted and elderly psychiatrist named Erik Cohen makes his way home to the Jewish ghetto after being interned in a Nazi labor camp. Yet only one visionary man—Heniek Corben— can see him and hear him. Heniek soon realizes that Cohen has become an ibbur—a spirit. But how and why has he taken this form? As Cohen recounts his disturbing and moving story, small but telling inconsistencies appear in his narrative. Heniek begins to believe that Cohen is not the secular Jew he claims to be, but may, in fact, be a student of practical Kabbalah—of magic. Why is he lying? And what is the importance of the anagrams he creates for the names of his friends and relatives? Heniek traces his suspicions and comes to an astonishing conclusion—one that has consequences for his own identity and life, and perhaps for the reader’s as well. Praise for The...
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Warsaw, 1941--an exhausted and elderly psychiatrist named Erik Cohen makes his way home to the Jewish ghetto after being interned in a Nazi labor camp. Yet only one visionary man—Heniek Corben— can see him and hear him. Heniek soon realizes that Cohen has become an ibbur—a spirit. But how and why has he taken this form?

As Cohen recounts his disturbing and moving story, small but telling inconsistencies appear in his narrative. Heniek begins to believe that Cohen is not the secular Jew he claims to be, but may, in fact, be a student of practical Kabbalah—of magic. Why is he lying? And what is the importance of the anagrams he creates for the names of his friends and relatives? Heniek traces his suspicions and comes to an astonishing conclusion—one that has consequences for his own identity and life, and perhaps for the reader’s as well.

Praise for The Warsaw Anagrams:

"The highly unusual setting adds tension to the investigation, and Zimler successfully manages to convey the horrors of the Holocaust through the experiences of one family." --Publishers Weekly

"An elderly Jewish psychiatrist investigates his grandnephew's murder in the Warsaw ghetto amid the horrors of the Holocaust." --LA Times

"Richard Zimler's Warsaw Anagrams is a gripping heartbreaking and beautiful thriller, set in the darkest depths of Nazi barbarity, but also a unforgettable, poetical and original journey into the mysteries of evil, decency and the human heart." --Simon Sebag Monteviore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography and Young Stalin

“Beautifully written, moving and disturbing, this packs a powerful, emotional punch.” --The Guardian

Read an excerpt »

We owe uniqueness to our dead at the very least.

                                                                                                                      Erik Cohen

 

THE WARSAW ANAGRAMS 

Preface

 

I’ve had a map of Warsaw in the soles of my feet since I was a young boy, so I made it nearly all the way home without any confusion or struggle.   

   Then I spotted the high brick wall around our island.  My heart leapt in my chest, and impossible hope sent my thoughts scattering – though I knew that Stefa and Adam would not be home to welcome me.

   A fat German guard munching on a steaming potato stood by the gate at Świętojerska Street.  As soon as I slipped inside, a young man wearing a tweed cap drawn low over his forehead raced past me.  The flour sack he’d hoisted over his shoulder dripped dots and dashes of liquid on his coat – Morse code in chicken blood, I guessed.   

     Men and women lumbered through the frigid streets, cracking the crusted ice with their worn-out shoes, their hands tucked deep inside their coat pockets, vapour bursts puffing from their mouths. 

   In my disquiet, I nearly stumbled over an old man who had frozen to death outside a small grocery.  He wore only a soiled undershirt, and his bare knees – badly swollen – were drawn in protectively to his chest.  His blood-crusted lips were bluish-grey, but his eyes were rimmed red, which gave me the impression that the last of his senses to depart our world had been his vision.

   In the hallway of Stefa’s building, the olive-green wallpaper had peeled away from the plaster and was falling in sheets, revealing hoary blotches of black mould.  The flat itself was ice-cold; not a crumb of food in sight. 

   Underwear and shirts were scattered around the sitting room.  They belonged to a man.  I had the feeling that Bina and her mother were long gone.  

   Stefa’s sofa, dining table and piano had vanished – probably sold or broken up for kindling.  Etched on the door to her bedroom were the pencil marks she and I had made to record Adam’s height every month.  I eased my fingertip towards the highest one, from February 15, 1941, but I lost my courage at the very last second – I didn’t want to risk touching all that might have been.  

   Whoever slept now in my niece’s bed was a reader; my Polish translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was splayed open on the ground by the headboard.  Next to the book was an empty tin cup that had been filled with ghetto water; on evaporating, the ochre crust I remembered well had been left behind.  

   Searching the apartment rekindled my sense of purpose, and I hoped that the world would touch me back now, but when I tried to open the door to Stefa’s wardrobe, my fingers eased into the dark wood as though into dense cold clay. 

   What did it mean to be nine years old and trapped on our forgotten island?  A clue: Adam would wake with a start over our first weeks together, catapulted from night-terrors, and lean over me to reach for the glass of water I kept on my side table.  Stirred by his wriggling, I’d lift the rim to his lips, but at first I resented his intrusions into my sleep.  It was only after nearly a month together that I began to treasure the squirming feel of him and his breathless gulps, and how, on lying back down, he’d pull my arm around him.  The gentle rise and fall of his slender chest would make me think of all I still had to be grateful for. 

   Lying in bed with my grandnephew, I used to force myself to stay awake because it didn’t seem fair how such a simple act as drawing in air could keep the boy in our world, and I needed to watch him closely, to lay my hand over his skullcap of blond hair and press my protection into him.  I wanted staying alive to involve a much more complex process.  For him – and for me, too.  Then dying would be so much harder for us both.   

  

Nearly all of my books were gone from the wooden shelves I’d built – burned for heating, no doubt.  But Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and some of my other psychiatry texts were still there.  Whoever was living here now had likely discovered that most of them were first editions and might fetch a good price outside the ghetto. 

   I spotted the German medical treatise into which I’d slipped two emergency matzos, but I made no attempt to retrieve them; although hunger still clawed at my belly, I no longer needed sustenance of that kind.  

   Eager for the comfort of a far-off horizon, I took the apartment house stairs up to the roof and stepped gingerly onto the wooden platform the Tarnowski’s – our neighbours – had built for stargazing.  Around me, the city rose in fairytale spires, turrets and domes – a child’s fantasy come to life.  Turning in a circle, tenderness surged through me.  Can one caress a city?  To be the Vistula River and embrace Warsaw must be its own reward at times.  

    And yet Stefa’s neighbourhood seemed more dismal than I remembered it – the tenements further mired in shaggy decay and filth despite all our wire and glue.  

   A voice cut the air with a raucous shout, dispelling my daydreams.  Across the street, leaning out a fourth-floor window, a shrivelled man in a tattered coat was waving at me frantically.  His temples were sunken and his stubble was white.

   “Hey!” he shouted.  “You there, you’re going to fall and break your neck!” 

   I saw a reflection of myself in his shrunken shoulders and panicked gaze.  I held up my hand to have him wait where he was, clambered off the roof and down the stairs, then padded across the street.    

   Up in his apartment, the man recognized that I wasn’t like him right away.  He opened his bloodshot eyes wide with astonishment and took a step back.  “Hello there,” he said warily. 

   “So…so you can really see me?” I stammered.   

   His face relaxed.  “Absolutely.  Though your edges…” He jiggled his hand and tilted his head critically.  “They’re not so good – a bit indistinct.”  

   “And aren’t you scared of me?” I asked. 

   “Nah, I’ve had visions before.  And besides, you speak Yiddish.  Why would a Jewish ibbur do me any harm?” 

   “An ibbur?”

   “A being like you – who’s come back from beyond the edge of the world.”

   He had a poetic way with words, which pleased me.  I smiled with relief; he could really see and hear me.  And it eased my worries to have a name for what I was. 

  “I’m Heniek Corben,” he told me.   

  “Erik Benjamin Cohen,” I replied, introducing myself as I had as a schoolboy.

  “Are you from Warsaw?” he asked.

  “Yes, I grew up near the centre of town, on Bednarska Street.” 

  Puckering his lips comically, he gave a low whistle.  “Nice neighbourhood!” he enthused, but when he flashed a grin I saw that his mouth was a ruin of rotted teeth.

   Interpreting my grimace as a sign of physical pain, he came closer. “Sit, sit, Reb Yid,” he told me in a concerned voice, pulling out a chair for me at his kitchen table. 

   Formality seemed a little absurd after all that we Jews had suffered.  “Please just call me Erik,” I told him.  

   I lowered myself in slow motion, fearing that I’d fail to find a solid seat, but the wood of his chair welcomed my bony bottom generously – proof that I was getting the knack of this new life.   

   Heniek looked me up and down, and his expression grew serious. 

   “What?” I asked.

   “You faded away for a moment.  I think maybe…” Ending his sentence abruptly, he held his gnarled hand above my head and blessed me in Hebrew.  “With any luck, that should do the trick,” he told me cheerfully.    

   Realizing he was probably religious, I said, “I haven’t seen any sign of God, or anything resembling an angel or demon.  No ghosts, no ghouls, no vampires – nothing.”  I didn’t want him to think I could answer any of his metaphysical questions.

   He waved off my concern.  “So what can I get you?  How about some nettle tea?”

   “Thank you, but I’ve discovered I don’t need to drink any more.”

   “Mind if I make some for myself?”
   “Be my guest.”
   While he boiled water, I asked him questions about what had happened since I’d left Warsaw the previous March. 

   Sighing, he replied, “Ech, mostly the same old misery.  The big excitement was during the summer – the Russians bombed us.  Unfortunately, the numbskull pilots missed Gestapo headquarters, but I’ve heard that Theatre Square was turned to rubble.” He lowered his voice and leaned towards me.  “The good news is the Americans have entered the war.  The Japanese bombed them a week ago according to the BBC – I’ve a friend with a hidden radio.”   

   “Why are you whispering?”

   He pointed up to heaven.  “I don’t want to sound optimistic – God might pull some more pranks on us if He thinks I’m being arrogant.”    

   Heniek’s superstitiousness would have provoked a sarcastic remark from me in times past, but I’d evidently become more patient in death.  “So where do you work?” I asked.

   “A clandestine soap factory.”

   “And you took the day off?”

   “Yes, I woke up with a slight fever – though now I’m feeling better.”

   “What’s the date?”

   “December 16, 1941.”

   “And what day of the week is it?”
   “Tuesday.”  

   It was seven days since I’d walked out of the Lublin labour camp where I’d been a prisoner, but by my count I’d taken only five days to reach home, so I’d lost forty-eight hours somewhere under my steps.  Maybe time passed differently for the likes of me. 

   Heniek told me he’d been a printer before moving into the ghetto.  His wife and daughter had died of tuberculosis a year earlier.  

   “I could live with the loneliness,” he said, gazing downward to hide his troubled eyes, “but the rest, it’s…it’s just too much.” 

   I knew from experience that the rest meant guilt, as well more subtle and confusing emotions for which we had no adequate name.   

    He dropped his nettle leaves into the white ceramic flowerpot he used for a teapot.   Then, looking up with renewed vigour, he asked after my family, and I told him that my daughter Liesel was in Izmir.  “She was working at an archaeological site when the war broke out, so she stayed there.”  

   “Have you been to see her yet?” 

   “No, I had to come here first.  But she’s safe.  Unless…” I jumped up, panicked.  “Turkey hasn’t entered the war, has it?”

   “No, no, it’s still neutral territory.  Don’t worry.”

   He poured boiling water over his nettle leaves in a slow and perfect circle, and his exactitude charmed me.  I sat back down.  

   “Excuse my curiosity, Erik, but why have you come back to us?” he asked.  

   “I’m not sure.  But any answer I could give you wouldn’t make much sense unless I told you about what happened to me in the ghetto – about my nephew most of all.”

   “So, what’s stopping you?  We could spend all day together, if you like.” 

   A mischievous glint appeared in Heniek’s eyes.  Despite his grief and loneliness, he seemed to be eager for a new adventure.      

   “I’ll tell you a little later,” I replied.  “Being able to talk with you…it’s unnerved me.”

   Heniek nodded his understanding.  After he’d had his tea, he suggested we go for a walk.  He carried a bag of potatoes to his sister, who shared a two-bedroom flat with six other tenants near the Great Synagogue, then, together, we listened to Noel Anbaum singing outside the Nowy Azazel Theatre.  His accordion made the most brilliant red and gold butterfly-shapes flutter across my eyes – a glorious and strange sensation, but one I’ve gotten used to of late; my senses often run together now, like glazes overflowing their borders.  In the end, might they merge completely?  Will I fall inside too great a landscape of sound, sight and touch, and be unable to grope my way back to myself?  Maybe that will be the way death will finally take me.   

 

Heniek, when I hear the patient hum of the carbide lamp that sits between us, and watch the quivering dance of its blue flame, the gratitude I feel embraces me as Adam did when I told him we would visit New York together.  And my gladness at being able to talk to you whispers in my ear: despite all the German’s attempts to remake the world, the natural laws still exist.   

   So I must tell my story to you in its proper order or I will become as lost as Hansel and Gretel.  And unlike those Christian children, I have no breadcrumbs to mark my way back home.  Because I have no home.  That is what being back in the city of my birth has taught me. 

 

First we will talk of how Adam vanished and returned to us in a different form.  And then I will tell you how Stefa made me believe in miracles.

 

 

richard-zimler's picture

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.
Anyone who has grieved over the death of a good friend or family member knows that no one would ever want a loved one remembered as a mere symbol or statistic. And yet those who died in the Holocaust have sometimes had their uniqueness subsumed in generalities. Teachers and historians, in their attempt to describe the magnitude of this tragedy, have often relied – understandably – on facts and figures. Obviously, having a clear and accurate grasp of the dimension of this genocide is vital, but such efforts generally fail to convey any sense of what the Jews, Gypsies and others went through. Only a well-told story can do that, which is why novels and memoirs about this period are valuable.
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.

About Richard

Richard Zimler was born in Roslyn Heights, a suburb of New York, in 1956. After earning a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion from Duke University (1977) and a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University (1982), he worked for eight years as a...

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Published Reviews

Jun.22.2011

As he did so brilliantly in "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" (1998), Zimler builds a riveting mystery around one of the most horrific moments in Jewish history. In 1940, following the German invasion of...

Jun.22.2011

The Warsaw Anagrams is a highly realist murder mystery. As in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Zimler's 1998 bestseller, the narrator sets out in the midst of massacre to solve one killing. Surprisingly...