Record and Testament
By John Hersey.
Knopf. 632 pp. $4.00.
This book, as most people will have learned by now, is the story of the Warsaw ghetto from November 1939 to May 1943 told by means of a fictional diary kept by Noach Levinson, self-appointed archivist of Polish Jewry. Mr. Hersey makes no attempt to tell the whole grim story, but concentrates on a manageable group of characters through whose reactions and fortunes the larger issues are projected and symbolized. The book ends with the Battle of the Ghetto of spring 1943, and the escape of a small remnant of fighters to join the Jewish partisans in the Lomiankì Forest.
It is impossible to read or discuss this book as though it were purely a work of the imagination. We know that what Mr. Hersey describes took place—or if not actually what he describes, then the same kind of thing, and on a much larger scale—and we cannot discuss the tragic action as though it were the action of Hamlet or The Brothers Karamazov. This is a book about the Jews of Warsaw, about their fears and hopes and suffering and heroism, a book about one phase of the monstrous evil which was enacted only a few years ago, and the knowledge of this is with us continuously as we read.
The particular personal events narrated here are often imaginary; but the larger pattern is a matter of history. One simply cannot write a tragedy about a situation whose real-life implications are still very much with us and which still arouse sorrow and indignation for what they were, not for what they can be made to be in literary art.
The Wall is therefore not a tragic book. Nor is it, on the other hand, simply a work of history disguised as fiction. What, therefore, does Mr. Hersey give us that is not to be found in the historical record, in the factual accounts of survivors or the composite reconstructions of researchers?
He gives us, in the first place, the record of his own noble and almost desperate sympathy. One might almost say that the book is the record of its author’s passionate endeavor to discover what these people were who aroused the sadistic furies of the Nazis, how they lived, what they thought and felt, and what it was like to be caught in a ghetto and doomed to extinction. One can see that anxiety to find out what it must have been like in the book’s form: Levinson the archivist, always listening, always observing, always interrogating, always writing down what people said or did in particular circumstances, is surely a projection of Mr. Hersey himself. Like Noach Levinson, Mr. Hersey was also collecting the pieces with a view to seeing what the total meaning came to, only Levinson’s creator goes beyond his created character and looks more overtly for the total meaning than Levinson was able to do.
The diary form, with its sporadic jottings, its fitting together of entries from this date and that, its brackets within brackets containing parenthetical explanations by the “editor” and explanatory passages from other parts of the diary, do not make for a good prose style or even for ease of reading. There is no tragic sweep in the language, which is jerky and often uncouth. The English is sometimes positively bad, and it may not be pedantic to point out, for example, that Mr. Hersey more than once uses “disinterested” to mean “uninterested” and “demeaned” in the sense of “having one’s importance diminished.” Nevertheless, in spite of his having deprived himself of the advantages of a cogent and impressive prose style, Mr. Hersey has achieved something significant by the diary form he employs: he has given the impression of somebody, with great labor and infinite patience, searching, searching, for the meaning of it all, setting down the facts one after another to see what can be made of them, what they really mean.
The impact of the novel does not arise from its literary grace or skill, but develops cumulatively from this patient presentation of small individual scenes. For all its 632 pages it is not too long a book, for if it is to achieve its effect in this way it must be long. With earnest care Mr. Hersey shows us the slow progression from acceptance of inferior status to realization of ultimate doom. The most arresting parts of the book are those middle sections where he shows the ghetto life adjusting itself to all the restrictions and dangers of the new regime: each new insult and injury is perforce accepted, and a new kind of normality emerges. Life goes on, there are weddings and concerts and pathetic attempts at festivity; as the ghetto becomes more and more confined and living conditions become more crowded, unsanitary, and humiliating, new standards soon become taken as a matter of course. When Sienna Street is removed from the ghetto area, and the already teeming ghetto is confined within a still narrower space, the shabbier Chlodny Street replaces Sienna Street as the street on which “everybody who is anybody” wants to live. The devices to keep some remnant of dignity and hope, of routine and purposeful daily activity, have to be continually renewed, and Mr. Hersey presents the process with great skill. Even in the midst of the typhus epidemic, and of the subsequent ever increasing daily removals of Jews “for re-settlement in the East,” the resilience of routine asserts itself and life goes on.
The ghetto, into which more and more Jews are poured, is gradually decreased in size, and then the second process, of removing its inhabitants to gas chambers, begins. The discovery, by a ghetto agent sent out to “the Aryan side” for the purpose, that resettlement in the East is simply mass slaughter, and the final discovery that all the Jews are destined for that end, finally stops—though not abruptly—the perpetual process of adjustment to ever worsening conditions. The adjustment, symbolized by the increasingly dubious significance of the Judenrat and the Jewish police, founded to allow the Jews to administer their own “order” (under German directive) in the ghetto, breaks down only when the final doom is fully realized. Only then do the varying factions get together, and only then is a militant fighters’ organization set up to fight back as far as they can and meet death actively rather than trundling passively in trucks and railway cars to the gas chambers.
Perhaps the most effective single incident in the book is the ritual slaughter of the emaciated work horse, purchased as food through the underground for a fantastically large sum. The horse is not, of course, a kosher animal, but the starving rabbi rules that in the circumstances it can be eaten, if it is properly slaughtered (though shechitah is now prohibited). The “shechting” of the wretched beast is a remarkable scene, and Mr. Hersey manages to infuse into his writing at this point a full sense of the meaning and (the word is hardly too strong) the beauty of the ritual. This slaughter by traditional Jewish humane methods of a bony horse in order to make a pathetic feast for a group of Jews and their rabbi is a perfect symbol of that adjustment which is the theme of much of the book. Yet the idea of adjustment reveals itself as all wrong, and when it is finally replaced by resistance, however hopeless, the whole tone of the book changes. There is a dignity in adjustment, in nobly making the best of a bad job, in carrying on as though things were the same as they had once been, but beyond a certain point the dignity disappears and the pretence of living in a normal world—or indeed in any livable world—becomes grotesque and shameful. In the meticulous tracing of the reactions of a group of individuals through the period of adjustment to the period of defiance lies much of this novel’s power and insight.
It looks at first as though the book is moving to a purely nationalist conclusion, as though the discovery by all the Jews in the ghetto of their solidarity as Jews contra mundum is to be presented as the saving idea. But, while Mr. Hersey shows how this idea grew and examines its effect on different characters, he does not allow it to become the “message” of the book. While The Wall is full of tentative conclusions, aphorisms, resolutions, professions of faith, made by one or other of the characters or by the diarist Levinson himself, the book comes to rest on none of them. It ends on a question: the few survivors are speaking together in the forest and Rachel asks: “Nu, what is the plan for tomorrow?”
Immediately preceding this conclusion, however, we have a conversation between Levinson and the heroine Rachel. They are waiting in the sewer for means of escape into the forest, and while they wait they talk. Levinson asks Rachel what she thinks about God, “now that she was on the point of graduating from ghetto-school life.”
“Rachel: I didn’t have much chance to learn about God; I am rather unclear as to God. But so far as the rest of our religion is concerned, I think there is only one thing: not to hurt anybody. For me the whole of the Torah is in one sentence in Leviticus: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
“N.L.: Even if thy neighbor is a Nazi?
“Rachel: How else cure him of being a Nazi?
“N.L.: Maybe there is no cure. Maybe you have to kill him.
“Rachel: I’ve tried that, and where did it get me? Where am I now?
“N.L.: In a sewer.”
There is little talk of this kind in the body of the novel, but the problem raised in this conversation is always in the background. What is the proper attitude to be adopted by a group publicly stigmatized as subhuman and doomed to suffering and slaughter? The problem is all the more complicated because the group is no easily definable community; it includes members who have no awareness of being members and some who have no desire to be members; it is neither a religion nor a nation nor a territorial group nor is it homogeneous linguistically, socially, or even racially. We can see the diverse elements in Warsaw Jewry facing this problem, circling round it, resisting having the question posed. But the question is posed, in a terribly practical way, and the answer must be given equally practically.
The final answer is unity and resistance, but though final in terms of the novel it is still only a temporary answer. Rachel’s final question—“Nu, what is the plan for tomorrow?”—remains with us as we close the book. Noach Levinson’s talk of Peretz in the height of the ghetto battle—“Peretz, the voice of Eastern European Jewry; Peretz, the most expressive and most all-embracing writer on Jewishness”—is an attempt to focus the problem preparatory to the final answer; it concludes with a significant quotation from Peretz: “Ghetto is impotence. Cultural cross-fertilization is the only possibility for human development. Humanity must be the synthesis, the sum, the quintessence of all national cultural forms and philosophies.”
But even this formulation leaves the final question still unanswered. What kind of unity should Jews aim at? And what happens if the non-Jewish world repudiates the notion of cross fertilization? Or if the Jews themselves repudiate it?
Mr. Hersey touches on these questions lightly but effectively in many different ways throughout the novel. For example, the efforts made by the Jewish Socialist leader Rapaport to achieve solidarity with Polish Socialists outside the ghetto come to nothing, although there are some important contributions made by individual Polish Socialists to the struggle in the ghetto. The anti-Semitism of the Poles, which needed little encouragement from the Germans, is fully recognized, without being melodramatically exaggerated. There are several specific instances of kindness and assistance from non-Jew to Jew, but they are insignificant in the general pattern. Yet it is significant that so long as the doomed people accept their doom, so long as the period of adjustment exists, the non-Jewish population remains completely indifferent or contemptuous: the ghetto gets some help from outside only when it has started to fight.
Such suggestions are the work of real knowledge and insight. There is little that Mr. Hersey presents in his novel that is not borne out by the historical record. By and large the tone is right, the background is right, the kinds of situation he presents are right. And—surprisingly, perhaps, in such a warm-hearted and sympathetic author—there is not a trace of sentímentality. There is an astringency in the writing, an utter refusal to idealize his characters, that succeeds in disguising the author’s strong personal involvement in what he is describing.
That astringency is a remarkable achievement, something that probably could not have been achieved by a Jewish writer. We are spared nothing: Jewish treachery, Jewish anti-Semitism, are here as well as Jewish timidity and lack of imagination. This is what gives the true note of authenticity to the novel. The ghetto becomes heroic only slowly and reluctantly (although there are many heroic individuals from the beginning), and the heroism when it comes is sardonic xather than romantic. Again, it is only the meticulous building up of detail that makes such a presentation possible and credible.
Of the larger questions raised in The Wall Mr. Hersey answers only one—the question of the attitude of the civilized and humane non-Jew to this deliberate horror. He has answered it implicitly by the very fact of writing this book. How much labor and research Mr. Hersey put into his writing I do not know; but it is clear that he must have spent a great deal of time studying the history and customs of Polish Jewry, Jewish religious ritual, Jewish folklore, humor, prejudices, traditions. It is amazing that someone with no trace of a Jewish background should have been able to write convincingly about the Warsaw ghetto using throughout the words of an imaginary Jewish character. Earlier reviewers of The Wall have not, it seems to me, sufficiently recognized the magnitude of Mr. Hersey’s achievement here, or the degree of human warmth which prompted it.
There are, it is true, many errors of fact and interpretation in Mr. Hersey’s presentation of Jewish customs and traditions. He has some serious errors in describing Jewish burial practices, and seems to know nothing of the functions of the Chevrah Kedushah here. He gives a wrong explanation for such things as “Mizrach” or “Lag Ba’ Omer.” One could compile quite a list. But these are extremely minor matters, and dwindle into insignificance beside his total achievement in presenting Polish Jewish life. He seems to have made himself thoroughly familiar with the Jewish prayer book, and on the whole uses it effectively. And the myriad other details he gets right are a tribute to the time and care he must have spent in preparing his materials.
If, then, The Wall is inadequate as a tragic novel, it is more than adequate as a fictional record of the struggles of Warsaw Jewry essentially accurate in tone and incident and presented with an elaboration of detail which makes dear the gradual transformation of the ghetto, under the impact of Nazi policy, from a home of suffering opportunism to one of disillusioned heroism. This is a remarkable enough achievement. But more remarkable still is the fact that Mr. Hersey should have chosen to write this book and to put so much labor into it.
We are stíll close enough to the events he describes, and civilization is still precarious enough as a result of those and similar events, for us to be able to appreciate this book, whatever else it may or may not be, as a splendid and moving testament of one man’s understanding and humanity.