Where did you get the idea for a thriller such as The Warsaw anagrams?
My original idea for The Warsaw anagrams was to research day-to-day life in the Warsaw ghetto, in part because I knew so little about it. How did the black market work? Were Polish Christians from outside the ghetto allowed to visit their Jewish friends inside? Were there schools? Part of why I was so curious was because all of my relatives in Poland – the brothers and sisters of my grandparents, for example – were interned in the ghettos of Warsaw, Brzeziny and Lodz before being transported to the death camps. When my grandparents emigrated to America around 1905, nine of their brothers and sisters remained behind in Poland, and all of them and their children were murdered by the Nazis. As I did my research, I decided that I wanted to explore the life of an elderly Jewish psychiatrist who survives a Nazi labour camp and returns home to a city where he no longer has any friends or loved ones. I have always been very interested in how we find the courage to go on with our lives after suffering great traumas. It seems to me a very important topic. While writing the very first page of the book, the novel changed, however. I was writing from the point of view of Erik Cohen. I wrote: “I’m a dead man”. I meant it figuratively – that he’d lost his loved ones and his profession and had no more reason to go on with his life. But as soon as I wrote those words, I had a revelation: Erik was indeed dead! He was what we call in Jewish mystical tradition an ibbur—a spirit or ghost that remains in this world to fulfill a duty or obligation that he failed to fulfill in life. But what was that duty? After Erik returns to Warsaw, he discovers one visionary man – Heniek Corben – who is able see and hear him. So Erik tells the story of his year of life in the Warsaw ghetto to Heniek in the hopes of figuring out what important deed or act he still needs to complete. For me, telling the story from the point of view of a ghost seemed fitting because more than three million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust. Also, it added poignancy to the story, because the reader knows right away that Erik has died, but doesn’t know how or in what context. It creates a mystery right away.
Even if the thriller is set in the historical period most infamous of mankind, you keep a sense of humour. How did you avoid giving the book a depressing tone?
What came to interest me most about the ghetto was the quiet heroism of its residents. And who resists by refusing to lose his humanity – including his wonderful sense of humor. One of my main goals was to restore individuality to its residents – to go beyond the statistics. As my narrator Erik says in the book, “We owe uniqueness to our dead at the very least.”
The international press has compared you to authors such as Primo Levi and Umberto Eco. What do you think?
It’s very flattering to be compared to Umberto Eco and, especially, Primo Levi, whom I regard as an extraordinarily talented writer and one of the best writers about the Holocaust. I often give talks at schools and libraries in Portugal, England and other countries about my writing and Jewish history, and when people in the audience ask what books about the Holocaust I would recommend, I always start with Se Questo è um uomo, I sommersi e i salvati, e Se non ora, quando?
The Warsaw anagrams has all the ingredients to make a movie out of it. There has been some interest from film productions?
I would love to have a film of the book. Now that the Italian edition has been published, perhaps Ferzan Özpetek or Nanni Moretti or some other Italian filmmaker will become interested in it. That would be wonderful! In New York, there’s a very experienced theater director who adored the book and who intends to make an opera based on it, and he is currently contacting potential composers.
Did you start to write something new?
I’m busy writing a murder mystery novel set in Lisbon in 2012. The tentative title is: The Night Watchman Who Loved Lisbon. It’s a book about brotherly love, child abuse and Portugal’s current economic – and psychological – crisis.
Causes Richard Zimler Supports
Save the Children, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)