With his international-bestseller The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler made a name as a master of historical thrillers. In this chilling mystery, winner of the Marques de Ouro Prize, Zimler has woven a gripping tale in the tradition of The Shadow of the Wind.
It is autumn, 1940, and the Nazis have sealed four-hundred-thousand Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto. Erik Cohen, an elderly psychiatrist, moves into a tiny apartment with his last remaining relatives. Then his beloved great-nephew Adam goes missing and his body is discovered tangled in the barbed wire, strangely mutilated. Soon afterward, another body turns up, this time a young girl. Could there be a Jewish traitor luring children to their deaths? With an unlikely hero and hair-raising suspense, The Warsaw Anagrams is a profoundly moving and darkly atmospheric thriller.
“Part murder mystery and part historical fiction . . . Thrilling.” —The Boston Globe
“A gripping, heartbreaking and beautiful thriller.” —Simon Sebag Montefiore, New York Times–bestselling author of The Romanovs
“Spare but striking prose . . . Masterful.” —Newsday
“A fast-moving, powerful and intellectual murder mystery set within wartime Warsaw Poland during World War II . . . Zimler provides layer after layer of intrigue and excitement. This is not simply a novel about the Holocaust. It is a murder mystery that will challenge the reader to uncover a frightening truth within a world turned upside down by war and genocide.” —New York Journal of Books
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On the last Saturday of September 1940, I hired a horse-cart, a driver and two day labourers to move me from my riverside apartment into my niece's one-bedroom flat inside the city's old Jewish quarter. I'd decided to leave home before the official establishment of a ghetto because much of Warsaw had already been declared off-limits to us, and I hardly needed a crystal ball to know what was coming next. I wanted to go into exile on my own terms – and to be able to choose who would take over my apartment. A Christian neighbour's university-age daughter and her barrister husband had already moved in.
In my best woollen suit, I walked closely behind the horse-cart, making sure that nothing slipped off into the mud. My oldest friend, Izzy Nowak, joined me, hoping to escape his dispiriting home for a little while; his wife Ró a had suffered a stroke earlier in the month and could no longer recognize him. Ró a's younger sister had moved in to help take care of her.
While Izzy stooped down to collect leaves painted red and yellow by autumn, he kept me talking so that I wouldn't seize up with despair. I've always lost my voice at the worst of times, however, so after only a block, I had to simply wave him off. Still, my feet kept going – a minor triumph – and after a time, as if through the rhythm of walking itself, an ethereal calm spread through me. As we passed the bomb-destroyed tower of the Royal Castle, though, a group of youths looking for a fight began calling us names. To foil their effort to provoke us, Izzy began singing a popular French song in his wobbly baritone; he and I have protected ourselves with the sound of our own voices since we were schoolboys teased by Christian classmates.
Jews from where we come from learn defensive strategies early, of course.
Along Freta Street, we joined a queue of refugees in our own city. Who knew so many of us had samovars, wicker furniture and bad landscape paintings? Or that a young mother with her small daughter clinging to the fringe of her dress would think of carrying a toilet into exile?
I looked at the faces around me, grimy with dust and sweat, and etched with panic. Sensing that the direction of my thoughts was straight down, Izzy hooked his arm in mine and pulled me forward. On reaching the door to Stefa's apartment house, he took me aside and said, 'Heaven, Erik, is where the most soft-spoken people win all the arguments.'
Izzy and I often try to surprise each other with one-line poems –gedichtele, we say in Yiddish, a language in which motherly affection embraces the tiny and insignificant.
'But what becomes of the quiet people in hell?' I asked, meaning here and now.
'Who can say?' he replied, but as we climbed the stairs, each of us lugging a suitcase, he stopped me. Laughing in a joyful burst, he announced, 'Erik, there are no quiet people in hell!'
Stefa intended for Adam to share her bed so that I could have my privacy in her sitting room, but the boy stamped around the kitchen on my arrival and shouted that he was too old to sleep with her. Izzy – the traitor – handed Adam his colourful autumn leaves as a present and fled for home. I sat by my bloated suitcases as though beside two cadavers, soaked with sweat and humiliation.
My niece marched over to me as I fought for calming breaths. Knowing what she was about to demand of me, I threw up my hand to draw a last line she dare not cross. 'It's out of the question!' I bellowed.
Believing that my bluster might trump her son's desperation was the error of a man who had given over the raising of his daughter to his wife. Soon, I'd put Adam and Stefa in tears, and the Tarnowskis had come over to see what all the shouting was about. It was a Rossini opera performed in a grotesque mishmash of Yiddish and Polish. And I was the outmatched villain with his head in his trembling hands.
Sooner or later, you'll make Uncle Erik feel better about everything if you behave like an angel, I heard Stefa whisper to Adam that night while tucking him in, but making the boy responsible for easing me into a life I never wanted only made me embrace my anger more tightly. The irony was that Adam and I had been friends before my move. On weekends, we'd launch paper sailboats at the lake in Lazienki Park, and he'd gabble on about what it was like to be growing up in an era of Hollywood stars, neon lights and automobiles. Smaller than most boys his age, he'd found success as a darter, the incarnation of a little silver fish. I'd given him his nickname, Piskorz.
Yet over those first wretched weeks as roommates, even Adam's soft breathing kept me up. I'd sit under a blanket by the window, smoking my pipe and gazing up at the stars, an ache of dislocation in my belly. For how long would I be a refugee in my own city? Strangely it seemed, my thoughts often turned to how Papa would carry a folding chair and a novel to Saski Square when I'd fly my kite. Always that same kindly image of him watching over me would steal into my mind – like a silent film stuck on a single frame. One morning at dawn it occurred to me why: his fatherly caring and gentlemanly manners were representative of a way of life that the Nazis were murdering.
Though that turned out to be only one of the reasons why Papa had come to me ...
* * *
One night during my second week in the ghetto, Adam burst up out of a nightmare and began sniffling into his pillow. At length, he crept to me wearing just his pyjama top, shivering, his arms out for balance – an elfin dancer teetering in the moonlight.
He must have kicked off his pyjama bottoms during the night because he had never let me or his mother see him naked of late; his best friend Wolfi had stupidly told him that his knees were knobbly and that the birthmarks on his ankle were funny looking.
When I asked the boy what was wrong, he gazed down and whispered that I didn't like him any more.
What courage it must have taken for him to step within range of the Big Bad Wolf!
I longed to throw my arms around him and press my lips to his silken hair, but I restrained myself. It was a moment of sinister triumph over what I knew was right.
Undone by my silence, he began to weep. 'You hate me, Uncle Erik,' he blurted out.
At the time I was pleased to see his tears and hear the misery in his voice. You see, Heniek, someone had to be punished for our imprisonment, and I was powerless to act against the real villains in our opera.
'Go back to sleep,' I told him gruffly.
How easy it is to lose a hold of love! A lesson that I've learned and forgotten half a dozen times over the course of my life. Still, if you believe I wanted to hurt only Adam, you'd be wrong. And I got my wish, since the chilling shame of that night still clings to me.
Stefa would walk her son to his clandestine school on Karmelicka Street every morning at 8.30, on the way to the factory where she sewed German army uniforms ten hours a day. I'd accompany him home in the early afternoon, since my work at the Yiddish Lending Library ended at one, but he refused to put his hand in mine andwould dash ahead of me. At home, he'd slump lifeless into his chair at the kitchen table – the posture of an unhappy combatant in an undeclared war.
I'd make him lunch, which was usually cheese on bread and onion or turnip soup – recipes from my days as a student in Vienna. We still had pepper then. Adam would grind away like a demon, flecking the soup's steaming surface black, then lift the bowl to his mouth with both hands and savour its fire. In fact, he transformed into a fiend around anything spicy, and I once even caught him eating spoonfuls of horseradish straight from the jar, though Stefa would have spanked him if she'd found out.
In the afternoons, he'd play with his neighbourhood gang. His mother had made him swear to stay on our street, since Nazi guards had already shot several children suspected of being black-market couriers, but we now lived on an island of urban caverns and mazes awaiting his exploration, and she had little hope of him sticking to his promise. In truth, he and his friends wandered all over the ghetto.
On stormy afternoons, when he was forbidden to leave the apartment, Adam would sit cross-legged on our bed drawing pictures of animals or practicing his loopy penmanship. Owing to the influence of his Uncle Izzy and his musical mother, he'd often sing to himself, as well. Stefa had begun giving Adam music lessons when he was four or five and had first picked out melodies on her yellowing Bluthner keyboard, which meant that he now had a song catalogue in his head that extended from Zionist anthems like the 'Hatikvah' all the way across the Atlantic to Irving Berlin, though his pronunciation of English was nearly unrecognizable and often unintentionally comic.
On those occasions when I demanded absolute quiet, he'd sit dutifully on our bed and do his beloved mathematics calculations, seeking silent comfort in his own love of precision and detail. I can see now that he tried to tiptoe through those first weeks with me. Maybe he had faith that I would eventually hear what he couldn't say.
On Saturday, 12 October, the inevitable came, and the Nazis ordered all Warsaw Jews inside the ghetto. The caravan of despair along Franciszka ska Street started at dawn. In the late afternoon, while I was watching from the window in Stefa's room, a Gestapo officer ordered a group of bearded Orthodox grandfathers to remove their prayer shawls and clothes, and do squat thrusts on the street.
'Bastards!' my niece mumbled to herself, but just a few minutes later she assured me we were better off this way.
'You must be joking!' I told her.
'Not at all!' she declared. 'Now we know we can depend on no one but ourselves.'
Heroic words they were, but I could see nothing positive in the panting desperation of those naked old men, much less in my humiliation for not running out to defend them.
Our spirits began to flag badly, so to cheer us up, Stefa invited some new friends of hers over for Sabbath dinner on 25 October: Ewa Gradman, a shy young widow who worked at the bakery in our courtyard; Ewa's seven-year-old daughter, Helena, a watchful little girl whose diabetes had left her with the gaunt cheeks and light-filled eyes of a saint in a Russian icon; and Ziv Levi, a saturnine, pimply seventeen-year-old orphan from Lod whom Ewa and Stefa had adopted as their pet project. He had just begun an apprenticeship at the bakery and had moved his cot into one of the storerooms.
Ewa baked a sweet-smelling kugelhopf for our party, and Ziv brought along four fresh eggs and a single red rose. The young man presented his gifts to Stefa with such chivalrous formality that Adam started to giggle and I had to chase him out of the room.
As always, our building manager Professor Engal, rapped three times on our door at sundown to indicate the start of the Sabbath.
After our banquet of carp and kasha, Stefa dug a straw hat out of her wardrobe, tilted it at a jaunty angle on her son's head, and whispered in his ear. He grimaced and squeezed out a hesitant No, but she replied For me, baby in a pleading tone, sat down at her piano and eased into the sugary opening bars of Maurice Chevalier's 'Valentine'.
Cowed by his mother's insistent glare, Adam began to sing. Unfortunately, he was too nervous to find his true voice, which was unstudied but beautiful.
The boy loved music but was terrified of performing; he only felt comfortable revealing his inner life – and his gifts – to those he loved. Stefa sometimes forgot that he wasn't a secret cabaret star like her.
I saw in my nephew's eyes that he was barely treading water, so, after the first verse, I jumped up and shushed him with whirling hands. 'Piskorz, it's way past your bedtime,' I told him, adding to our guests that we ought to call it a night.
Stefa, furious, looked back and forth between her wristwatch and me. Faking a laugh, she said, 'But you can't be serious – it's only nine!'
'The boy needs his sleep,' I told her. 'And in point of fact, so do I.'
Adam looked at me with a face compressed by fear, his straw hat in his hands.
Stefa jumped up, glaring. 'If you don't mind, Uncle Erik, I'll make the rules in my own home! Especially when it comes to my son.'
'Very well, make all the rules you want – but without me!' I snapped back, and I took a first step towards the coat rack, intending to walk off my anger, but Adam burst into tears and bolted into his mother's room.
I rushed to him, but when I caressed his cheek he turned away from me. I assured him that I didn't want an angel for a nephew. 'Especially since I'm an atheist, and I have no intention of going to heaven,' I joked.
Pity an old man with little experience of children; my attempt at levity only made him cry harder. While I was apologizing to him, Stefa appeared in the doorway, her hands on her hips. 'Now you've done it!' she began. 'As if the boy didn't have —'
'He shouldn't have to sing for me or anyone else!' I cut in. 'You know he doesn't like it.' Hoping to ease the tension between us with a little humour, I added, 'Besides, I think we can do without him singing chansons d'amour in Yiddish-accented French, at least till we get a bit more desperate for entertainment.'
'All you do is bully him!' Stefa yelled vengefully. 'You scare him half to death!'
She was right, of course. 'All that ends now,' I told her, and I surprised myself by adding, 'I'm through punishing him.'
Tears welled in my niece's eyes.
'I'm sorry I've been difficult, Katshkele,' I told her, using the pet name everyone in the family had for her.
She nodded her acceptance of my apology, unable to speak. I took Adam in my arms and kissed his brow. Stefa eased the door closed on the way out.
Adam and I talked together in whispers, since it made our friendship more intimate. I dried his eyes and spoke to him of the journeys I'd take him on when we got out of the ghetto. New York was the city that crowned his dreams, and he stood on his toes when we talked of riding up to the top of the Empire State Building, showing me how he'd look out across the widest horizon in the world.
Lying with my arm around Adam that night, I saw that my father had been haunting my mind to remind me I was failing his great-grandson. And myself, of course.CHAPTER 2
I'd come to the ghetto planning to read all of Freud one more time, and eager to write up several case studies, but within two months I'd given all that up. It was strangely easy. As if all I had to do was hop on a tram headed into the countryside instead of the city centre.
One minute, a man can think of nothing but leaving behind seminal works that will be read in London and Vienna for decades, the next he is waiting outside a soot-covered grammar school for his nephew, examining a ripped seam on one of his two pairs of trousers and wondering if he still knows how to use a needle and thread.
Now that Adam and I were friends again, he'd tell me about his day as we walked home from school. He'd start in a cautious monotone, testing my interest, but each of my questions would encourage him to pick up his rhythm, so that his account would soon be zooming downhill at top speed. Sometimes he'd launch himself across a bridge of thought where I didn't know how to follow. His words would whizz past me like honeybees.
To have a buzzing little nephew telling me stories that I didn't have to understand or interpret was to be in a state of grace.
Adam and I soon got into the habit of visiting Izzy after school and having lunch with him. My old friend had had his elegant clock shop in New Town closed by the Nazis and was repairing watches in a dank, dungeon-like workshop at the front of a stationery warehouse on Zamenhof Street. What Adam loved most about our afternoons there was watching Izzy perform lengthy surgery on a watch or clock. The boy would kneel on his chair and lean across the worktable, his chin propped on his fists, entranced by how his uncle-by-affection could tweezer even the most microscopic gears, cogs and springs into place. And bring what was dead to life.
In a way, Izzy became the wizard in the story of Adam's life inside the ghetto. Just as Ziv was soon to become the awkward genius ...
One Saturday evening in early November, the baker's apprentice stopped by with an alabaster chessboard under his arm and challenged me to a game. As if he was a schoolboy unable to dress without his mother's help, the tail of his white shirt was sticking out and one of his shoelaces was undone. His stiff ginger hair fell sloppily over his ears.
I thought I might have a chance against such an oddball, but within twenty minutes he had taken my queen, both bishops and a rook. Worse, the upstart had chosen his moves with lightning speed, making it nearly always my turn. A few minutes later, he had my king cornered.
When Adam asked how he could play so quickly, Ziv replied, 'I've always been able to think many moves ahead – up to ten or twelve, of late.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Warsaw Anagrams"
Copyright © 2009 Richard Zimler.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A definite page turner, i had a very hard time putting this book down