The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

This review was originally posted to the Libri Populus website – a great site for bookish people.

Title – The Warsaw Anagrams

Author – Richard Zimler

Published – 2011

Genre – Crime fiction

This is a crime fiction novel set in the Warsaw ghetto of 1940, not an obvious setting for a “murder mystery ” and it is perhaps unnecessary to say that this is a dark novel.  

The story is narrated by Erik Cohen, an elderly psychiatrist, who has returned to the ghetto having made what would seem to be an impossible journey. Shown hospitality by Heniek Corben, a lonely old resident, he begins to tell the story of his initial move to the ghetto and the death of his great-nephew.

Cohen voluntarily moved to the ghetto in September 1940 to live with his niece and her nine-year-old son, Adam. Although things are strained to start with, there’s a close bond between Adam and his great-uncle.

As the Germans seal off the ghetto and tighten up access, everyday items such as coal and soap become hard to obtain luxuries. Trade continues in spite of this as the children use secret border crossings to smuggle goods in and out.

After disappearing one afternoon Adam’s body is found the next morning tangled in the barbed wire on the German side of the fence. Even more mysterious is the fact that when Adam was found he was naked and his right leg had been cut off from the knee.

Despite his devastation at the brutal murder Cohen is galvanised into action. It may seem odd in a situation where there is death on every street corner, but perhaps the point is that in the whole enormous tragedy each single death is a very personal tragedy for that family. To quote Cohen “We owe uniqueness to our dead at the very least.”  Cohen is soon visited by a member of the Jewish Council and it becomes clear that Adam isn’t the only victim brutalised in this way, and there may be more to his murder than a border crossing gone wrong.  

Braving the Nazis Cohen and his closest friend, Izzy, make a hazardous crossing to the German side to try to find out more about Adam and the other victim. This is a journey fraught with danger as they try to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo.  

Following a further tragedy for Cohen his only interest becomes solving Adam’s murder and bringing the perpetrator to justice – something he is determined to do whatever the cost. The book maintains its pace as Cohen and Izzy pursue their investigation to its conslusion.

In the end it is Corben who becomes the narrator, providing a postscript which gives the reader the opportunity to find out what happened to some of the other characters both during and after the war.

Despite the sober nature of the setting and the story there are some light-hearted moments, as well as those of poignant sadness. The description of life in the ghetto is only the background to the story but author Richard Zimler is very knowledgeable about the period. Of course it’s not made any easier for the reader knowing the final outcome for many who were confined to the ghetto and how futile their efforts to re-build their lives may be.

The use of the ghetto and the persecution of the Jews as the setting for the book brings alive the situation of the ordinary people caught up in the war, but it’s also a gripping murder mystery which kept me guessing until the conclusion.

Score – 4/5

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