Book review: The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler

The eighth book in Richard Zimler’s outstanding series of Jewish novels takes us into the depths of the Warsaw Ghetto where death, disease, despair and degradation stalk the ragged remnants of a once-bustling community.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 29th March 2011, 7:00 am

Holed up in a forgotten ‘island’ created by the Nazis to contain the city’s Jews, the inhabitants have come to accept death as an everyday occurrence...but a series of murders sends shockwaves through the ghetto.

Children are being lured away and then ritualistically killed, and all the evidence is pointing to the unthinkable - a Jewish traitor.

This is Zimler’s first foray into the heart of the Holocaust and his story is as unexpected as it is complex, moving and intriguing.

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Steeped in Jewish philosophy and Zimler’s trademark psychological insight, The Warsaw Anagrams is a mystical, mesmerising murder thriller set against an uncompromising and brutal backcloth.

Essentially an elaborate and atmospheric whodunit, the book’s narrator is a ghost, or Hebrew ibbur, the great uncle of one of the young victims, and his beyond-the-grave mission is to seek out justice.

In the autumn of 1940, elderly psychiatrist Erik Cohen is forced to leave his comfortable apartment in an upmarket area of Warsaw and move in with his niece and her son in a one-bedroom flat in the filthy, festering ghetto.

Over 400,000 Jews are crowded into a small area of the Polish capital where grimy, dusty, sweaty faces are etched with fear and panic and every day is a battle for survival.

The fiercely private Erik and his nine-year-old great nephew Adam are uneasy and unwilling roommates but slowly the two grow to love and respect each other.

‘I needed to watch him closely,’ recalls Erik, ‘to lay my hand over his skullcap of blond hair and press my protection into him.’

Young and adventurous, Adam wanders the streets of the ghetto but one night he fails to return home and the next day his body is found entangled in the barbed wire on the perimeter. One of his legs has been cut off and a piece of string has been left in his mouth.

While his mother Stefa retreats into her misery, the devastated Erik and his childhood friend Izzy, a man of infinite courage, humour and hope, launch a desperate and dangerous hunt for Adam’s killer.

But within days, a girl is found murdered with her hand cut off and many are convinced that the killer is one of their own.

When the dead girl’s mother reveals that her daughter had been involved in a relationship with a young Polish man and had been meeting him outside the ghetto, Erik uncovers horrors and perversions too dreadful to contemplate.

The Warsaw Anagrams, a reference to the secret language of the ghetto which involved rearranging words to confuse the Nazis, is as dark and disturbing as one would expect of any novel dealing with the Holocaust.

But there is, too, a glimmer of hope in the all-embracing, all-conquering love of Erik Cohen...the kind of love that transcends atrocity, suffering and death and raises the human soul to a higher level.

(Corsair, paperback, £7.99)