In the gripping historical novel “We Must Not Think of Ourselves,” set in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, the main character, an English teacher and Polish Jew, is taxed with a heart-wrenching assignment.
Adam Paskow is asked to interview those being held captive in the confined space of the ghetto and record their stories so that the Jewish peoples’ experiences, and history, won’t be forgotten.
It’s a fascinating premise for a book, made even more poignant because, “…one can visit the Oneg Shabbat Archive..in Warsaw and see actual diary entries, sketches and other paraphernalia collected by the archivists,” Lauren Grodstein, the author, writes in her afterword.
During the war, as the Nazis imposed rules that restricted the Jews’ lives, bit by bit their freedoms were taken away—they could not visit parks, sit on public benches, had to wear yellow armbands, and stop leaving their homes unless they absolutely had to. “…finally, (they) were forced to abandon (their) homes and move to a new district, one and a half square miles of densely packed apartments and businesses in the old Jewish section in the middle of Warsaw.”
Living in cramped conditions, several families to a flat, was a difficult adjustment. Prior to being confined in the ghetto, Paskow lost his wife to a brain injury. The couple was childless and Paskow, a gentle, caring man, finds some measure of relief in his job at the Aid Society, and in volunteering. Three times a week he teaches English to a small group of Jewish children, using poetry he’s memorized because he has no books to use to instruct them.
As Paskow’s backstory is revealed, the narrative is interspersed with text from interviews Paskow conducts. While one might assume this would render the narrative confusing, with the inclusion of a number of different characters, this isn’t the case at all. Paskow also records some of his history and feelings about the unbelievable course of events unfurling for the Jews, conditions that grow increasingly dire as food grows scarce, daily shootings become the norm and disease runs rampant.
Though just getting through each day becomes a monumental task, one best accomplished by not drawing interest to yourself, miracles of mercy and love still occur in the ghetto. “We Must Not Think of Ourselves" is a touching, well-told story with admirable characters who will stay with you. This is a book not to be missed.