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Novel of the Holocaust – and author Elisabeth Gifford talks to us about Warsaw

30th August 2018

The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford, novel set in WW2 Warsaw. A homage to Dr Janusz Korczak.

“…if you have love then you have everything”

Elisabeth Gifford

We went to Warsaw last year and, as is my wont, I looked out for books set in the place I am visiting. This book hadn’t been published at the point of my visit but it would have been an amazing addition to my collection of books to read in the city. It is an easy destination for anyone in Europe and it is a city that has been witness to so much; Poland itself has been a country that has existed in some form for centuries but being in the heart of Europe has seen its size grow and reduce, depending who had conquered the country at a given point.

Elisabeth Gifford

20 Chłodna – the home of Adam Czerniakow, head of the wartime Jewish Council, lived here. He took poison in 1942 rather than collude with the Nazis and organize transports to Treblinka.

We stayed in the Mirów area of the city (you can read a little more about our experiences in our Shout Out for a city break in Warsaw). This is the location of the Ghetto and although most of Warsaw was raised to the ground, there are still plaques and indicators of the extent of the large and small Warsaw Ghetto, linked by a bridge. Adam Czerniakow, who was the head of the wartime Jewish Council and who had any authority withdrawn from him, lived at 20 Chłodna.

In the novel, as WW2 breaks out, the Germans are advancing from the West. The city is caught in a pincer movement, eventually the Russians homing in from the East. The author has chosen as her central character the child doctor Janusz Korczak, who used his experiences as a child to inform his thinking and studies in later life. He advocated that children need to be treated with empathy and understanding, so that they can develop into well rounded adults. If children cry, it is a way to express something for which they have no words… why would punishment be the first response?

Typical Soviet block architecture

He has set up an orphanage for Jewish children based on strong principles of care and respect. Helping him is Misha – and in part this is his story too, with Sophia. As the war unfolds, the Jews are confined to the area within the Ghetto until they are largely transported to the death camp at Treblinka. After the war only 1% of the jews of Warsaw survived. The Germans razed the Ghetto to the ground to wipe out everyone behind an uprising.

The story of the humiliation, abuse and terror is told with feeling, it is a terrible story unfolding on the pages. It is written in the present tense (and I am not usually a fan of books written in the present) and this lends the story an immediacy and a way of connecting with terrible events that happened across the Summer of 1942 onwards to the end of the war… just over 70 years ago. It is many ways an homage to this selfless and caring man who tried to prioritise the children in his care. it is a great surprise to me that he is not more well-known.

The author has a gift for storytelling and once she had decided on the central character and his story, she had to then work on actually writing her book, no mean feat. This is a satisfying story that, although depressing in many ways, is also redemptive – and a timely and sobering reminder how easily psychopaths can manipulate and terrorise and ultimately eradicate one section of the population.

It is definitely a novel to read and to hear the footsteps echo from the past in Warsaw.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

And over to Elisabeth who is shares her experience of the city.

Monument to Dr Korczak

I had only seen Warsaw in films such as Three Colours White, long shots of dour Soviet blocks, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I visited for a weekend to research The Good Doctor of Warsaw. By the end of the trip, I’d fallen in love with Warsaw and only wished I had longer. It has the prettiness of Prague and is the site of so many historical events that still resonate through modern day Europe.

Our airbnb, a lovely set of serviced apartments in an eighteenth century block on Freta or Flower street, overlooked the red-brick city walls and the medieval roofs of the old city. The centre of the city was razed by the Reich at the end of WW2 but was rebuilt, by its residents, from old records and photographs and it is hard to imagine now that there was any break in continuity as you wander the market square with its merchant’s houses, each decorated in flamboyant style, its churches and the narrow streets where old buildings cluster together above cobbled streets.

Castle Square

In Castle Square I saw young couples meeting beneath the statue in the centre, just as Misha and Sophia did in The Good Doctor of Warsaw. It was easy to see what an elegant city Warsaw had been before the war, and is once again now, in spite of the Soviet housing blocks on the outskirts. We ate royally in a café overlooking the castle and the river beyond, then took a horse drawn carriage around the city walls, discovering the beautiful long vistas of Warsaw and its quaint courtyards and many baroque churches and buildings. During WW2, with cars in short supply, horse drawn carriages were the only taxis. We explored Theatre Square and Saxon Park, the columns of the palace visible beyond the giant fountain.

Warsaw is the city of Chopin. A musical bench played his sonatas as you sat in the statue lined avenues.

A third of Warsaw’s population was once Jewish, but under the Reich they were herded into a central area surrounded by walls ten feet high – the Warsaw Ghetto – among them Dr Korczak and his children. He tried to make life as happy for the children as possible and refused to leave them even though his many Polish friends offered to help him escape. After the removal of its half a million inhabitants to a death camp, the Jewish ghetto was bulldozed by the Reich, but much of the boundary wall is now commemorated with a brass line in the pavement and plaques with maps of the ghetto. Some parts of the wall still stand as monuments.

The Umschlagplatz or freight yard is commemorated as a quiet space. The modern school buildings overlooking the freight yard are still there, as is the Gestapo building opposite, later used as a school and where Sophia, one of the 1% who survived the ghetto, worked as a teacher after the war, knowing that just over the street was the place where Dr Korczak and the children and her own parents were once corralled and then sent on trains to Treblinka. Warsaw is a beautiful city, but if you look, there are many places where you can feel the full impact of some of recent history’s most searing moments.

The original home Korczak built for his 200 children is still a children’s home, with a museum dedicated to Dr Korczak, keeping alive his message of love and respect for all children of all cultures. The Polin museum had just opened when I visited and brings back to life Warsaw’s fascinating Jewish communities around Grzybowski Square and other districts.

There is also a museum dedicated to the Warsaw uprising, and many other museums and galleries. The large Jewish cemetery is now more like a forest with trees growing unchecked, and with a monument for Korczak and the children.
Today, Warsaw is a thriving city full of young people working, creating and having fun.

Midsummer evening

On midsummer’s eve, the riverside was teeming with people setting flower garlands on the water and lighting sky lanterns, with a festival of music and food to follow. I have to say, we ate very well. Strawberry pierogi are delicious. I loved U Fukiera restaurant in the old town with its traditional Polish food and décor. I’d love to return to Warsaw soon. I hope The Good Doctor of Warsaw goes some way to recreating pre-war Warsaw and the lost Jewish community that was once so much a part of Warsaw’s identity.

You can follow Elisabeth on Twitter, Facebook and via her website

Photos © Elisabeth Gifford

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  1. User: Ruty Hotzen

    Posted on: 01/01/2019 at 1:29 pm

    I love your trip to Warsaw story.
    as part of IKA in Israel I would like to follow you and see if I can add some ideas while doing my trip on the footsteps of Korczak.


    1 Comment

    • User: tripfiction

      Posted on: 01/01/2019 at 1:44 pm

      That is so good to hear, that is what #literarywanderlust is all about. Do have a good and worthwhile visit!!!