WE MUST NOT THINK OF OURSELVES, by Lauren Grodstein
Two decades before World War II, Lauren Grodstein’s great-grandparents fled Poland’s capital city and the antisemitism that was already ascendant there. “In all likelihood,” she writes in the afterword to this accomplished sixth book, “I would not be here had they stayed.” A chilling what-if, an idea for a book. More than a century after those ancestors escaped to safety, Grodstein gives voice to the doomed denizens they might have become.
Set in the brutal Warsaw ghetto that made prisoners of more than 400,000 Jews under Nazi occupation, “We Must Not Think of Ourselves” centers on Adam Paskow, a middle-aged, nonobservant university professor who “barely remembered I was a Jew” before the Germans invaded in 1939. Still grieving the recent death of his wife, Adam moves like a man in a dream as “the fist closed slowly around us.” Taking trains, going to theaters, resting on benches — bit by inexorable bit, the ordinary stuff of life is forbidden to Warsaw Jews. Finally, they are forced from their homes and into shabby, overcrowded quarters within the city’s old Jewish section, its gates secured behind them. The gates “were locked, but we did not believe they were locked. Even after they had taken our jobs, our money, our schools. Even after they had taken our homes.” Like proverbial frogs in slowly warming water, they are shocked when things come to a boil.
Sharing an apartment with 10 others and teaching English in a crumbling basement, Adam signs on to interview his neighbors for the Oneg Shabbat project, a clandestine effort to gather accounts of life in the ghetto for posterity. Grodstein’s tale is clearly informed by those actual witness records, some of which survived the destruction of the ghetto and the deaths — from starvation, disease or “Grossaktion” deportation to camps like Treblinka — of most of its inhabitants. She describes the shrinking food supply, the random violence of Nazi guards, the sought-after rotgut that “tasted like dirty prunes.” Also the ignorance that kept the general will to live from extinguishing entirely. “On that first fall evening 11 months ago,” Adam muses, “if you had told any of us that we would be here for an entire year … surely at least one of us would have run to a guard and begged him to shoot. But we didn’t know, so we had survived.”
When rumors begin spreading about mass exterminations to the east — Jews forced to dig their own graves before being gunned down beside them — a kind of willed blindness sets in. It couldn’t happen in the ghetto, one Oneg member tells herself, because “there’s nowhere around here to dig.”