The Train to Warsaw: A Novel, by Gwen Edelman, Grove Atlantic, 208 pages
The Train to Warsaw is an interesting work in both content and style. Jascha and Lilka, Jewish lovers who met in the Warsaw ghetto, escaped separately, and reunited in London years later, are the passengers on this train. Jascha has become a famous writer and is invited to Poland to give a reading. He has no desire to return to the country that nearly killed him—and did kill so many. Lilka, with fond memories of prewar Warsaw, wants to return “home” and convinces him to accept the invitation. Of course, the home she remembers ceased to exist years ago.
The plot of this novel is predictable: Jascha and Lilka remember the horrors of the past, and on their journey both reveal parts of their stories to they’ve hidden from one another for more than forty years. But the fact that the reader can predict the overall arc of the novel, doesn’t make it any less engaging. Edelman presents these two characters with such care and specificity that their experiences seem new precisely because these are their experiences.
A major theme here is complicity: the complicity of the Poles who handed Jews over to the Nazis for the benefits this would bring them; the complicity of the Jewish police within the ghetto; the complicity in the suffering of others that no ghetto resident could avoid. Both Jascha and Lilka view their survival as a betrayal of sorts. They lived when so few did, and both lived because they found ways to construct new, non-Jewish identities for themselves.
Jascha and Lilka keep their sense of complicity close at hand, probing it the way one probes any physically or emotionally painful area—to confirm the pain and to keep reminding one’s self that the pain has been survived, if not escaped. The Polish nation they return to, unlike them, is determined to forget the past. When Jascha challenges his Polish audience by reading a particularly devastating section of one of his novels set in the ghetto, everyone finds a way to distance herself or himself from the genocide. The young say they weren’t born then; the old say they suffered as well during the occupation; those in the middle claim they were too young during the war to have any kind of responsibility. And the reader, of course, is left to wonder if such deliberate forgetting may lead to repetition.
The novel is composed primarily of conversations, both in the present and the past, and because Edelman doesn’t use standard dialogue formatting (no quotation marks here), the reader is forced to be attentive to the shifts in the narrative being constructed. The prose is deceptively simple, obscuring at first the fractal-like complexity of events, time, and emotion.
This is a book that can be read in an evening, but one that will require a much longer period than that to fully absorb—the sort of book that remains satisfying long after one has finished it.