The Warsaw Anagrams

  • Richard Zimler
  • The Overlook Press
  • 323 pp.
  • August 15, 2011

At great personal cost, a Jewish doctor in Nazi-occupied Poland endeavors to solve gruesome murders in which one of the Warsaw ghetto’s own is a collaborator.

Reviewed by Clyde Linsley

Wheels within wheels, doors behind doors, words within words – The Warsaw Anagrams is a complex series of puzzles and, well, anagrams that mask a serious purpose. The reader who embarks on this strange journey may find himself, at the end of the book, in possession of a succession of images – mysterious, disturbing, some of them even comforting – that will remain with him for a long time.

Picking one’s way through the intricacies of Richard Zimler’s narrative takes some time and effort. Zimler tells a complex story and takes pains to establish the ground rules that govern this particular universe. Set in 1940 in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, the story is told in the first person by an elderly psychiatrist, Dr. Erik Cohen. Cohen has moved from his relatively comfortable home into the apartment of his niece and her son in the crowded Jewish quarter of the city. As Cohen puts it, the Nazis had declared much of Warsaw off-limits to Jews and “I hardly needed a crystal ball to know what was coming next.”

The Nazi rulers have segregated Jews into this rabbit warren to make them easier to control and, eventually, to destroy. The residents of the ghetto adapt in various ways. Deprived of their livelihoods, some take to smuggling, finding ways to slip through the walls that imprison them in order to engage in black market transactions on the other side. Others adapt by collaborating with their captors. To confuse their captors and collaborators, the smugglers and other resisters communicate through coded messages – the anagrams of the title.

When Cohen’s beloved nephew disappears and later is found murdered with one leg missing, the doctor sets out on a mission to unmask the murderers and bring them to some sort of justice. His investigation discloses at least two more similar murders. In each instance the victim had a small blemish on the body, which appeared on the part of the body that was removed. The victims were killed, apparently, so that the murderer could obtain those blemishes for his own nefarious reasons.

Clearly, someone in the Warsaw ghetto is identifying people with blemishes – such as birthmarks – and informing someone else about likely victims. The murders take place outside the ghetto, where Jews are not permitted officially, but the identification process begins in the ghetto. Poland’s German masters are involved, of course, but they are not alone. A collaborator is at work.

At this point a regular reader of mystery novels, who is aware of some of the idiosyncrasies of the Nazi mindset, may have an inkling of the motives behind the murders and the resolution of the investigation. (The way these blemishes of the flesh are used is particularly gruesome.) Cohen resolutely digs through the evidence, identifies the culprits, and exacts a sort of revenge, albeit at great cost to himself.

The Warsaw Anagrams is an interesting mystery in itself, but Zimler is after bigger game. He hopes to prevent us from forgetting about the victims of the Nazis’ ethnic cleansing. He succeeds admirably as far as I’m concerned. His eye for the details of life in the ghetto is piercing, and his vision is clear and unsentimental. This is a book that will remain in your mind long after it has been replaced on the shelf.

Clyde Linsley’s historical mystery novel, Death of a Mill Girl, was recently re-released through the Author’s Guild Back in Print program. A freelance journalist and novelist, he lives in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

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