The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

Book Review of The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler

I rarely pre-order books as soon as I hear about them, but when I saw that Richard Zimler was about to publish a new novel I clicked a couple of times on a book-seller’s website and waited expectantly.  

I have read every one of his novels which explore some intriguing corners of Jewish history, from The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996), to The Seventh Gate (2007) and know that Zimler’s novels are worth waiting for.

In this series of books we move from the 1506 massacre of Jews in Lisbon to 20th century Berlin via 16th century Goa and 19th century America – all of these books featuring the kabbalist and sage Berekiah Zarco and his like-minded descendants.

Fortunately, when The Warsaw Anagrams arrived I was pleased to discover that I was rapidly drawn into the midst of a complex  criminal investigation in a unique setting – and with touches of mysticism and Jewish philosophy thrown in.

The Warsaw Anagrams is set in 1941 Poland, most of the story taking place in the Warsaw Ghetto, with occasional (and usually disastrous) forays outside.  

The story is narrated by Erik Cohen, a practicing psychiatrist before being incarcerated in the Ghetto, who we learn is a now a wandering soul, an ibbur, who has returned to revisit the scene of some terrible crimes and to pass on his story to those who will listen.  Fortunately he finds a suitable recipient for his tale in Heniek Corben who seems to take the appearance of a ghost in his stride:

“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.

Realising he was probably religious, I said, “I haven’t seen any sign of God, or anything resembling and angel or demon. No ghosts, no ghouls, no vampires – nothing”.  He waved off my concerns.  “So what can I get you?  How about some nettle tea?”.

The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

Heniek turns out to be a willing amanuensis, diligently writing down Eriks story – the result being this novel.

The book opens with Erik being forced to move in with his niece Stefa and her son Adam due to the demands on living space caused by the frequent waves of new arrivals.  Erik does what he can to make life secure for his new family, but Adam is a mischievous boy and loves to roam the streets and alleys of the Ghetto.  

One day, Adam doesn’t return home from his wanderings and because the Ghetto can be a dangerous place, his mother and Erik fear the worst.  The next morning, his body is found entangled in the barbed wire just outside the Ghetto walls, and perhaps worst of all, one of his legs has been removed.

The Ghetto has seen many deaths, often at the hands of the Nazi soldiers who enforce the enclosure, but this is different – a perverse and cruel murder.  Erik is devastated by the loss of the child, and comforts the grief-stricken Stefa as best he can, but a slow-burning anger enters his heart and he finds himself compelled to find out what happened to Adam.

More deaths of children occur, and Erik finds himself allying with his close friend Izzy to continue the investigation in places where there own lives are in danger.  This is a gripping read: each step on the journey to a solution is hard-won and Erik and Izzy find that the Ghetto is a place of drama and unfolding mysteries.

Richard Zimler’s books are steeped in Jewish history (as is shown by the glossary of Yiddish words which crop up in the conversations between the various characters).  

Zimler’s knowledge of life in the Ghetto has enabled him to draw a moving and at times horrifying picture of life within the walls, where up to 400,000 people were confined within an area not much bigger than a square mile or so.

The whole book is steeped in a sense of imminent catastrophe, for Erik, being a ghost knows the end from the beginning – that his neighbours in the Ghetto are almost all doomed to exile and death before the war is over.  

With such knowledge, one may wonder why it is so important to Erik to find Adam’s killer?  When all are to die, where is the significance of a single death?  Erik’s motivation is of course love, and a love-fueled quest for revenge.  Our philosophical perspective matters nothing when a child has been murdered, for justice has to be done.

In an interview Richard Zimler revealed that he submitted his first book in the series, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, to 24 American publishers only to have the manuscript rejected by each one.  Eventually he submitted to a Portuguese publisher who called him to the office and said, “What would you like on the cover?”.  

Since then it has been published in over twenty countries, including America which had first rejected it.  We can be grateful to the insight of the  Portuguese publisher who took a chance on the book for a rich series has resulted from it, each book of which stands alone, but the total building up to far more than the sum of its parts.