This book was recommended to me by a friend I visited during Christmas. Since I read Król (The King), the first part, a few years back, I decided to reread it and then start Królestwo (The Kingdom). Which is a good decision if you want to know the backstories of the characters, but the book works just as well on its own.
We meet some of the side characters from Król in the winter of 1944. They are still in Warsaw, the war rages all around them, and because they are Jewish they hide and fight for survival. The story is told in two voices: Ryfka and Dawid. Ryfka was a successful brothel owner from Król and former lover of Jakub Szapiro, who was the main character in that book, now finally Ryfka gets a voice of her own. Dawid is one of Jakub’s two sons, who again were mute in the previous book, treated more like furniture than people.
In the winter of 1944 Warsaw is ruined, with both the Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising having failed. Everyone knows by then that Hitler will not win the war, but it doesn’t change their immediate situation which requires them to hide in ruins, venture out only at night to scavenge for food. The harsh winter is not helpful either, and everyone is balancing on the thin border between life and death.
Both Ryfka and Dawid tell us how they got to that point, so we can reconnect the point where the story ended in Król with the current plot. As can be expected from 1939 the story is one of humiliation and horror after horror. For their various reasons both of them bear through it, they fight, hide, persevere. One of the factors that keep each of them going is the hate for Jakub Szapiro. This time it is he who is voiceless in this book. On a literary level, this feels like a revolt of the side characters.
I’ve read my share of the books about war, so in terms of the horrors described it is not the most brutal one. However, for someone who has not had much previous reading from that space, it may be very violent and shocking. What was interesting about this book, was the motivations of Ryfka and Dawid to survive. Together with the situation, their motivation renders them beyond our comprehension. Not having been in an extreme situation like this we fail to fully absorb their state. And I think this is partially what it’s about to make us realize how impossible this was. And how the impossible happens and people survive it, or not.
Interestingly, it is the final scene that is the most terrifying, even though it is not violent, when you think of it it’s almost soothing, but the context renders it unbearable.
I’m a bit on the fence about this book. Somehow I feel Król was better as a work of fiction, it was a lot more consistent. This, and I know this will sound awful, is another book about WWII. It burns slower than Król, is more terrifying, but in some way lacks originality. I feel bad writing this, because it feels like I am diminishing the horror and suffering of the Jews in WWII Poland, but it’s not about that, if we focus on the book’s literary merit it is an average book. As simple as that. And I don’t think the subject is any excuse here. It feels as if the subject paralyzed the author and prevented him from going beyond the borders of how those stories are typically told. The question is do we need another book written in the same way? Or given the radicalization of the world do we need books that will bring the lessons of the past to us in new ways?
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska