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The Oneg Shabbat archive was a secret project of Jewish prisoners in the Warsaw Ghetto to record their histories as they awaited deportation to Nazi death camps during World War II. Lauren Grodstein has used this historical fact as the basis for her mesmerizing new novel, “We Must Not Think of Ourselves.”
It is narrated by a fictional schoolteacher, Adam Paskow, who conducts interviews for the real-life archives as he falls in love with a married woman, Sala Wiskoff, with whom he shares overcrowded quarters.
Grodstein, who was inspired to write the book after a Jewish family heritage trip to Warsaw, where she first encountered the diary entries, propaganda posters and other materials that comprise the archives, excels at character development and naturalistic dialogue. In Adam, she has created an immensely appealing protagonist, notwithstanding his adulterous affair with Sala, who is equally charismatic.
Before the war, Adam was living a quiet, bookish life in a prosperous neighborhood of Warsaw with his wealthy Polish Catholic wife. They were very much in love. But after she dies and the Nazis invade Poland, he is forced out of their cozy flat (“filled with books and Oriental rugs”) and into the gated and locked ghetto, patrolled by armed guards, where he teaches English to some of the displaced children.
Adam and Sala are flirtatious almost from the beginning as Adam, who is a bit of a dreamer, struggles to comprehend the reality of their situation. “They can’t kill all of us,” he says to Sala. “Can’t they?” she replies. “It’s illogical,” he reasons. “And the Nazis pride themselves on being logical.” Later, he thinks to himself, “How on earth could they pull such a thing off? And would the world really… let them?”
Of course, it does. As the war drags on and conditions in the ghetto worsen, Adam finally has a moment of reckoning. Reflecting on the purpose of the project launched by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who named it Oneg Shabbat, or “joy of the sabbath,” after the day of the week when the archivists met, Adam thinks: “Now I realize that we are creating a portrait of Polish Jews at the end of our history.”
But that was not to be. In a twist on “Sophie’s Choice,” Adam, who never identified strongly as a Jew before the war, obtains documents that will let him and two others escape to freedom — he just has to decide which two. It is a deeply moving conclusion to an extraordinary work of historical fiction.
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