The Train to Warsaw: A Novel
- By Gwen Edelman
- Grove Press
- 208 pp.
- Reviewed by Bárbara Mujica
- June 16, 2014
Two lovers haunted by the Holocaust return to Poland to find nothing of their past remains.
Forty years after World War II, Jascha Kroll and his wife, Lilka, find themselves on a train to Warsaw, the city of their youth. Jascha, now a famous writer celebrated for his hair-raising tales about the Holocaust, has no desire to leave their apartment in London to travel to Poland, where a writers’ association has invited him to read from his novel, The Way Down.
While Lilka still nurtures fond memories of her bourgeois childhood in Warsaw, Jascha insists that nothing of that delightful past remains. Nevertheless, Lilka eventually prevails. As the train advances through the snowy countryside, Lilka and Jascha alternately bicker and reminisce. Through this fragmented and cryptic conversation, their story emerges.
During the war, the Nazis imprisoned the Jews in walled-in ghettos, depriving them of even the most basic of necessities. Lilka manages to subsist thanks to her mother’s blond hair, Aryan looks, and willingness to sleep with a Nazi. Jascha, on the other hand, lives by his wits. A clever smuggler, he becomes the right-hand man of the ghetto boss, known as “the Accountant.” Organized by this mastermind, smugglers run everything from clothing to cows into the ghetto through secret tunnels in order to prevent Jews from freezing to death or starving.
Jascha’s chilling account of Nazi cruelty and Polish cooperation with the Gestapo is one of the most disturbing aspects of Gwen Edelman’s latest book. Jascha describes “tourists” who visit the ghetto with guns in order to shoot Jews for sport. Equally horrific are the mass round-ups of Jews, including the wife and twin daughters of the Accountant, who, in spite of having saved countless Jewish lives through bribery and ingenuity, is powerless to save his own family and winds up committing suicide.
Separated after the war, the two lovers reconnect and marry in London, where he writes and she translates his works. However, their relationship is strained from the beginning. Jascha is narcissistic, demanding, and unfaithful. He feels compelled to educate the world about the horrors he has witnessed: “I could disappear from one moment to the next,” he tells himself. “And I wanted [people] to know. I carried a universe in my head.”
But the demons that haunt him interfere in his personal relationships. His unpredictability and constant womanizing aggravate Lilka’s own fragile psychological state. As traumatized as her husband, Lilka sometimes awakens during the night from nightmares in which she feels herself being shipped off to a concentration camp.
Once they arrive in Poland after their long train ride, Lilka finds Jascha’s warnings about Warsaw justified. The once-posh hotel where they lodge is dilapidated and gloomy. A drab, functional building has replaced her childhood home. The streets and parks have lost their charm. Taxi drivers are surly and suspicious. People comment on how well Lilka speaks Polish, but look at her askance, trying to figure out if she is a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Jascha glares at everyone and insists on speaking English.
As they explore the old neighborhoods, Jascha rages against the Poles who once persecuted him and now want to celebrate him as a writer. At first he refuses to go to the reading, and only Lilka’s persistence gets him there on time. But Jascha’s hostility poisons the atmosphere. When he reprimands Lilka for “ingratiating” to their hosts, she insists that she is only being courteous. “Why?” he snarls. “Do they deserve it?” When the audience applauds, he responds with contempt: “Why are you clapping?” The response to his presentation is predictable.
On their way back to London, Jascha and Lilka crumple. In a barrage of words in which recriminations alternate with terms of endearment, decades-old secrets come to light, such as the circumstances behind the death of Lilka’s mother and the true identity of the person who arranged for Jascha’s escape from Poland. In spite of their long marriage, Jascha and Lilka hardly know each other.
The train to Warsaw has taken Jascha and Lilka not only on a physical journey, but on a journey of self-exploration. They have come to realize that they will never feel at home anywhere — not in Poland, not in England. In spite of the tensions between them, these two traumatized and tormented souls are bound to each other by shared experience and grief, and the only home they will ever have is each other: “You are my only home,” Jascha tells Lilka, and after they make love, he cries out, “let me come home.”
Edelman has portrayed the horror of the Holocaust from a singular angle: its impact on love and intimacy. To her credit, she has resisted clichéd depictions of victimhood. In fact, Jascha and Lilka are not particularly likeable protagonists. He is egotistical and vindictive; she is whiny and self-indulgent. Like all of us, they are flawed human beings. Yet, they muster their stamina and resourcefulness to survive not only the war but also married life. Edelman has written a powerful and moving novel that is both disturbing and exhilarating.
Bárbara Mujica is a novelist and professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University. In addition to a Ph.D. in Spanish, she holds an M.A. in French and studied at the Sorbonne. Her latest novel is I Am Venus, based on the life of the Spanish painter Diego de Velázquez. She is also author of Frida and Sister Teresa, based on the lives of Frida Kahlo and Teresa de Ávila.