Erik Cohen is an elderly psychiatrist - but that was in 'Before Time'. Before the Nazi's sealed him, and countless others, into the Warsaw Ghetto. Now he lives with his niece, and grandnephew Adam, in a tiny apartment. It is 1940, freezing cold and life has been turned upside down. It seems to Erik that anything can happen, especially the worst. Then Adam goes missing and his body is found tossed on the barbed wire. It has been thrown there from outside the ghetto and his body has been mutilated. Stranger still, Erik finds a piece of string in his mouth and then discovers that other Jewish children have suffered the same fate. With his old friend Izzy, Erik sets off to discover who is luring Jewish children to their death and how, and why, Adam had left the Ghetto. This is a very atmospheric and exciting thriller, with great characters. Although the setting and situation is dark and dangerous, and the author portrays this with great tension and realism, the book also has humour and the spirit of humanity that nobody could take away from Erik and Izzy - who are great heroes indeed. I have never read anything by this author before, but I am sure I will be rectifying that. I read the kindle edition of this book, which was well edited and without typos. Highly recommended.
on 22 April 2011
A most unusual mystery, because of place and time and the background tragedy of the Warsaw ghetto - indeed the tragedy of Poland, since Hitler hated the Poles almost as much as he hated the Jews. This novel is beautifully written, with a clever plot. It reminds us...we should never forget....of man's inhumanity to man. But importantly it also showcases the nobility of the human spirit. The characters are exquisitely drawn. I could not put it down.
As with many other reviewers, I had not come across this author before and, indeed, only happened on this book by chance. But what a chance.
With relations by proxy in Poland I have been to Auschwitz, a journey every citizen should take once in their lifetime, if only to see what civilised people can do to each other. This book so adroitly shows also what civilised people can do to endure these terrible hardships and to finally overcome them. This is not a book which is easy on the mental images. The Warsaw ghetto, one of many created by the Nazis to force the Jewish inhabitants into a life of degradation and squalour and eventually on to transportation to the death camps, is brutally described by the author. And yet, through all, shines the life of Erik Cohen, an elderly psychiatrist, now attempting to discover the killer of his young great-nephew.
So begins our jouney, too, as Erik recounts his story to a friend who, in turn, chronicles every word. This is, without doubt, a murder mystery in its own right but it soon becomes clear the young boy is not the only victim. Erik calls in favours and most of all uses his extraordinarily good friend Izzy to help him discover the truth. In the event, without Izzy, I rather think Erik would have failed but this is what makes the book all the more interesting. For this human spirit permeates through the story and I think a Latin phrase used in the book sums up the courage and fortitude shown by the Ghetto inhabitants - festina lente or make haste slowly.
I'm glad I've read the book. There were no surprises for me for I am of an age that remembers only too well but the author brings such clarity and vibrancy to an otherwise sombre and heartrending situation that younger readers must surely want to learn at least a little more about Central Europe during the 1930s and 40s.
on 8 May 2011
I would have very happily read this novel even without the murder mystery element such was Zimler's moving portrayal of life in the Jewish Ghetto of World War II Warsaw. Having said that, the murder plot was very clever indeed and unless you suss out the anagrams and speak Polish and German you're surely not going to unravel it before the author reveals it slowly.
You're taken beyond the cliched images of the bewildered, haggard Jews in the ghetto which you're used to seeing in documentaries. The characters in the novel refuse to submit meekly to their fate, getting what they can out of life in such a desperate situation. In the midst of the squalor (which they often use as a source of gentle teasing of each other), they were trying to lead as normal a life as possible and Zimler gives you a heart-warming insight into their courageous refusal to give up.
You desperately want all the (good) characters to survive but even the person telling the story doesn't know who made it out alive.
on 17 April 2011
A beautifully written book. I haven't read anything as good about the Warsaw Ghetto since Mila 18 by Leon Uris. I really enjoyed the way he interweaves history and a criminal investigation. The characters are developed very well and the plot moves inexorably to its conclusion. Reviewed by Tim Ellis - Author of: 'A Life for a Life'.
on 13 March 2011
This was my first book by author Richard Zimler, i'll be totally honest and say i'd never heard of him before. I love discovering new authors, and even though you shouldn't, there is still alot to be said for a cover of a book, however on this occasion it was the strap line at the foot of the cover which reads "Evil will flourish even when good men fight it", which made me pick it up and give it a try.
I was not disappointed, and couldn't put it down. The book is told through the eyes of Erik Cohen, an elderly man, who is forced to live with his neice and 9 year old great-nephew, Adam. The year is 1940 and the Nazis have sealed 400,000 Jews inside a small area of the Polish capital. Adam goes missing and his body is later found tangled in the barbed wire which surrounds the ghetto. Erik does everything within his power to trap his nephew's killer, even putting his own life at risk in the most forbidden corners of Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
I found this book heartbreaking in places, and because the author done such a fantastic job with the detail and descriptions, it was sometimes really difficult to believe you wern't there, walking those freezing cold Warsaw streets with Erik.
If you read only one book this year, please pick up this book. It's a great story, and will keep you captivated from page 1!
I'm fast becoming aware that having a Kindle is a great way of getting to know new authors. The promotions by Amazon/publishers whereby books are sold at a low price for a few weeks is excellent. As an writer myself, I do worry that the amount received by the author is diluted because of this but hopefully it increases sales in the long run. Anyway, I bought this on a whim during a recent promotion and I'm pleased I did. Set in the Warsaw ghetto during WW2, it is partly a crime novel, with the protagonist Erik setting out to find who has murdered his nephew Adam and in the process discovering that other children have also been murdered. To his horror, it appears that someone in the ghetto has played a substantial part in these crimes. With his friend Izzy (a wonderful character - the sort of friend we all hope to have), he resolves to avenge these murders. More than that though, this is a novel which serves to remind us of the Holocaust.
The privations of life in the ghetto are very well described. You get a very clear picture of what it must have been like there: the lack of food, the poor sanitation, the crowded conditions as more and more Jews were forced to leave their homes and go to live with strangers (one of the Nazi policies for the ghettos was to force strangers to live with each other, not just sharing flats, but sharing rooms).
It is always controversial writing about the Holocaust and I imagine that there will be some who will heavily criticise this novel. Adorno famously wrote "After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry" which has been taken by some to mean that it should not be written about at all. He was worried about people taking aesthetic pleasure in poetry written about the Holocaust and that somehow this might diminish the suffering of those who died under the Nazis. My own feeling is that as long as literature about the Holocaust is not prurient in any way, then it is something to be welcomed. One of the characters in the novel talks about the need for individuals to be remembered (I think it was Erik) and for me this is one of the most important purposes of such literature. With time there are inevitably fewer survivors to remind us of the atrocities of Nazi Germany and literature will have more of a role in helping us to remember.
on 9 May 2011
An elderly Jew, Erik Cohen, is one of the many Warsaw Jews the Germans rounded up and condemned to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940. Erik was once a prominent psychiatrist. He gets by in the horrific Ghetto but is already skin and bones. We know little about his former life, only that he was respected and took some comfort in that respect.
Erik's young nephew, Adam, is one of Erik's few lights of hope. Adam has a sparkle about him and might just make it out of this hell.
Then Adam is murdered. It's a grisly killing that leaves the boy's corpse horribly disfigured and tossed onto barbwire just outside the ghetto. Erik's shock turns to rage, and he summons the grit to find the killer. The clues are few and cryptic and Erik will endanger friends and family on the way, which would seem more careless if they weren't already so damned.
The desperate hunt is on. Erik and his old friend Izzy even cross over secretly into regular Warsaw, a chase full of riddles and false friends that will lead just where it had to. This isn't standard historical crime fiction. The story surges between: Erik's pursuit of an untouchable and crafty killer who, in standard historical mystery style, also symbolizes the dark era; and Erik's longing for lives and loved ones lost and soon to be lost, the former pummeling Erik in storms of emotion and nightmare.
Erik Cohen had been an atheist and modern Jew, but the old Jewish ways loom even as they're being eradicated. At times the dead seem to come alive like Ibbur in the Jewish Kabbalah, decent souls not sure if they're alive or dead. The ciphers and anagrams of that tradition will also help Erik cover his tracks -- and lead him to the killer.
The dire setting of The Warsaw Anagrams outdoes the mean streets of most any noir novel. Those inside slowly succumb to misery and oppression, cold and hunger, and those somehow alive survive as ghosts of their former selves. It's a grueling wasteland churning backwards to a primitive state where good can rarely find its reward. Everyone loses and the more cunning often win. The story evokes noir in the fierce and hopeless way Erik and others scrap and scheme to beat rigged odds, well knowing they're well screwed. They will finish off what they pursue not so much to survive but to honor their dead and plunge a jagged blade into the throat of all those who thrive on making them disappear.
Author Richard Zimler is from New York and lives and teaches in Portugal. Zimler's novels include the internationally bestselling The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, and Seventh Gate. He's won numerous prizes for his historical fiction, and the reasons ring clear in The Warsaw Anagrams. The writing is intense. Zimler is able to pinpoint emotions and desires with dead accuracy. The beginning and some sections favor loose, introspective narrative over action and dialogue that show the reader the way, but these passages work with great effect to establish Erik's longing, agony and the harsh fate of too many.
Near the end, when Erik tells the man who will continue his quest for him, "Beware of men who see no mystery when they look in the mirror," you begin to know just what Erik means.
*A longer version of this review ran originally in the Noir Journal blog.*
on 2 June 2011
Warsaw Anagrams was the first book I bought on my Kindle based on the strength of some recommendations and I could not have chosen better. There are plenty of reviews that indicate the novel's themes and story, so I want to focus on why this should be amongst your library.
The Jewish ghettos are not often written about in this context or, indeed, focussed on in museums and exhibitions; much of these tend to talk about the restrictions to lives and, latterly, being imprisoned in camps. Richard Zimler's novel made me more aware of the possible conditions inside such a ghetto and the survival of its people within such a claustrophobic place.
For me, the style of writing also falls into a similar category as The Book Thief (I've reviewed this previously) due to its story telling perspective and focussing on the people and circumstances rather than the global politics of the time. However, this is very much a book for adults.
Importantly, it is wonderfully written and allowed me to paint a vivid landscape of the people, places and difficult circumstances of the time; it also reflects the juxtaposition with that of the rest of Warsaw and The Before Time.
I was also enthralled by the clever weave of what is, essentially, a crime novel (murder mystery) with the horrible historical events of the 1930s & 1940s.
At the price I paid for the Kindle version, this was great value for money and I look forward to reading more of this author's work.
on 5 May 2011
This was a very good read on all levels,It showed the inhumanity of life in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw under the command of the Germans. The cheapness of life, and the real aspects of kindness and generosity of spirit that are shown. It also tells a good murder investigation-young children being murdered for the birth marks on their skins.
The novel takes an innovative approach to story telling,and it works very well,and what I particularly liked was the thread of truth and real events that runs through the whole fabric of the novel. The novel also illustrates the true love that can exist between people of either sex, and seems to somehow sum up what real friends and friendship is all; about.
This a novel that I would particularly recommend as a good read, and certainly I will endeavour to read more of Riochard Zimler's books,as I feel he is an author who writes with a great deal of passion,and either painstaking research or inside knowledge about what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto during the second world war.