'Warsaw Was the Most Beautiful City'

In a heart-wrenching novel, Gwen Edelman sends an aging couple who escaped the Ghetto four decades earlier back to the Polish capital for a visit.

The Train to Warsaw, by Gwen Edelman

Grove Press, 195 pages, $24

The spare and intimate language in “The Train to Warsaw” is deceptively simple. It creatively disguises a compelling tale told by two lovers, whose stunning, sometimes shocking dialogue ultimately becomes an exploration of the enduring wounds of the Holocaust, the mystery of memory, and the irresolvable trauma of lived experience. In her first novel, “War Story,” Gwen Edelman, through the bitter words of a master playwright and Holocaust survivor, had similarly plumbed the depths of psychic and spiritual scars left by history. “The Train to Warsaw” is a richer work still. Her protagonists are more fully developed and are deftly woven into a sensual and haunting narrative, crisscrossing more than four decades of despair and secrecy, exposing the multiple tragedies of 1940s Warsaw.

After escaping the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, Jascha, carrying with him the nagging realization that he has left other Jews behind to die, settles in London. Here he achieves success with a critically acclaimed fictionalized memoir of his wartime experience. Yet neither he nor his wife, Lilka, also a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, where they met, feels fully transplanted. They simply cannot call London “home.” Even after 40 years, Lilka says, “London is as alien to me as the other side of the moon.”

Invited back to Warsaw to do a reading, sometime in the 1980s before the fall of Communism, Jascha is stubbornly resistant to going “Back There.” But he begrudgingly gives in to Lilka, who, like so many exiles, even Jews driven from countries in which they were born and nurtured, considers their return to Warsaw a homecoming. Throughout their dream-like, vodka-saturated journey by train through Eastern Europe, Jascha, filled with repressed rage, says again and again in one way or another, “God knows why we are going… didn’t we have enough?” His remarks, sometimes delivered softly, but more often with the belligerence of a man who has something to hide, reveal unrelenting bitterness toward the Polish perpetrators of crimes against the Jews, as well as a nearly equal contempt for the victims who “didn’t fly off when they still could.”

Jascha and Lilka engage in a dialectical dance, struggling between and within themselves to maintain patience, even something resembling hope, as they take turns at being sensitive, sometimes overly so, to perceived insolence and the subliminal anti-Semitism of the Poles. Even the well-intentioned host of Jascha’s reading tells the blonde, blue-eyed and pale-skinned Lilka, “You look Polish. And speak such good Polish too.” “I am Polish,” she says, which elicits a hasty, “Of course, of course.”

Lilka’s anticipation about seeing Warsaw again is colored by visions of the pre-war city, “our beloved Warsaw.” But eagerness gives way, temporarily, to episodes of nightmare and panic as the train moves toward the Polish capital. On arrival, Lilka suffers spasmodic shivers, and asks, “Can this be Warsaw? So ugly? So soulless?” Jascha intimates that she is seeing the city in a relentless, glaring Communist light, where nothing can be hidden. “It’s another place entirely,” he tells her, “certainly not home.” Indeed, Jascha demands that the name and memory of Warsaw be forever erased. But anger turns out not to be the whole truth about his emotions and his experiences, which are more complex, multilayered and, finally, ungraspable.

For his reading, Jascha determines to be provocative. “Why should I go easy on them?” he asks; “why shouldn’t they suffer?” His words prompt walkouts from an audience whose members are still unable to face the past. “Why must we listen to this? cried out a man with white hair. Wasn’t it the Germans who were responsible? It’s more than forty years, said a woman in the front row. Most of us were not born. A man shouted angrily – did we not suffer too?” Here Edelman touches on issues still hotly debated in the historical literature and in international political circles. But she wisely stays with her novel instead of leaving its compelling, twisting path to write a short essay on Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust.

Here as elsewhere in “The Train to Warsaw,” Edelman, who moved from New York to Paris to “make” herself a writer, joins the ranks of those few gifted creators of Holocaust fiction who were neither survivors nor children of survivors, such as Anne Michaels (“Fugitive Pieces”) and Cynthia Ozick (“The Shawl”).

When Jascha replies to Lilka’s list of accusations against the Poles by saying, “Not all of them,” we are reminded of a historical irony. Poland had the lowest Jewish survival rate of any country in World War II; but grouped by nationality, Poles represent the largest number of people who rescued Jews during the Shoah. (Six thousand, four hundred Polish names are listed among the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem). But this, too, Edelman rightly avoids, citing no statistics.

After Jascha’s reading, the couple continue to re-explore the city, and all the while, just as on the train and at their hotel, they trade stories, including some about their clandestine love-making in the ghetto, which afforded them a joyful respite from the sadness and horror of daily life there. But mostly they talk about those who were more brutalized than they had been, like the young boy who in desperation cried out, “I want to steal. I want to kill. I want to eat. I want to be a German.” And Lilka tells Jascha about an “ancient woman…. tiny, skin and bones, covered in layers of rags” who approached her one evening. “From her throat came a weak croak and she said my name. I stared at her and could not understand how she knew me. The stench was terrible. It’s Pani Rozen, she said hoarsely. I pulled back in disbelief. My old piano teacher. She had been pink and plump, with lively dark eyes and white teeth. Only a few years older than I. She was in love with Schubert. I’ve changed, she croaked sadly. She bent close to me, and I forced myself not to recoil. I’m no longer human, she murmured.”

As these searing incidents are recalled, Jascha and Lilka urge each other not to think about such things now. “Another time. Only not now.” Still, they go on remembering and talking, all the while working backward into their own past lives in the ghetto until their own stories meet. Through their dark and perhaps cathartic tales they learn new breathtaking truths, and rehearse old ones that retain the power, even after 40 years, to shock. Among other riveting episodes and reflections in this irresistible novel, Edelman has written an achingly affecting meditation on how difficult it is, at bottom, to know another person. Still, Lilka and Jascha learn that love, though marked by conflict, secrecy, despair and even betrayal, may be the only “home” to which one can ever hope to return.

On the journey back to London, Lilka says, haltingly, “I wanted… I hoped….” Yes, Jascha tells her sympathetically, “like all of us.” The visit appears to have been a kind of exorcism or purge, but Lilka is left with a residue of troubling memories and questions. “Warsaw was the most beautiful city,” she says, as their train speeds along westward. Lilka stares out her window at the snow-covered fields, and continues speaking, as if transfixed, “Warsaw… do you remember?... Warsaw… were we not loyal to you? Did we not love you more than any other city?... What had we done to deserve this?... Warsaw, answer me.” Like God and the universe, Warsaw remains silent.

Gerald Sorin is a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz. His most recent book, “Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the
Left Lane” (Indiana University Press), won a National Jewish Book Award.

Daphne Youree