Tuesday, December 26, 2023

We Must Not Think of Ourselves

We Must Not Think of Ourselves
  We Must Not Think of Ourselves
Author:  Lauren Grodstein
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2023. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1643752340 / 978-1643752341

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The man came to my classroom on December 14, 1940, at 4:40 pm."

Favorite Quote:  "There should be another word for this feeling - a sort of sorrowful happiness, or a happiness that only deepens someone's sorrow. The closest I can come to it is the Portuguese word saudade, which nears this feeling but tempers it with nostalgia, a wish for something that was and can never be again. A grieving person lives in a permanent state of saudade, but saudade does not incorporate joy. And grief might be simpler if joy never tried to intrude."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


December 1940. Warsaw, Poland. This is a story of the Holocaust. From the author's note: "While this book is fiction, it is based on historical events, and real people make cameo appearances. Today, one can visit the Oneg Shabbat Archive at 3/5 Tlomackie Street in Warsaw and see actual diary entries, sketches, and other paraphernalia collected by the archivists."

The goal of the archivists:  "Our task is to pay attention... To listen to the stories. We want all political backgrounds, all religious attitudes. The illiterate and the elite. Every ideology. Interview everyone. Learn about their lives. I need the best minds here to help."

What strikes me most about this description is the need and desire to listen to and honor all. Given the political climate of the world today, that is a powerful statement. To see the descriptions of this book mirrored in current news stories is frightening. 

The book makes an additional statement. The main character, Jewish by birth, speaks of his family who "went in for Palestine several years ago" and who "begged, really - that I come with her." His home, his work, and his entire life is Warsaw. "We had never practiced Judaism before, and I thought myself too old to try believing something new, or to take advantage of an accident of birth to claim some brown patch of desert as my home." 

Such is the power of fiction especially historical fiction. The author Laura Grodstein was born and raised Jewish and has family members who are Holocaust survivors. I do not know if the political statement is an intended one, but it is nevertheless a clear one. This is an important story because it is vital that the history be remembered and the conversation continue towards making "never again" a reality for all.

That being said, I found the storytelling itself challenging to engage with. Given that the history in this book is the collecting of stories, a significant portion of the book is narrated through interviews. As such, the story is "told" rather than "shown." Many of the interviews and the main character's stories also go back in time about how and why that individual comes to be in this place at this time. The main character's story is also about grief at the loss of his wife; that is a tragedy separate and distinct from the tragedy of the ghetto and the pograms.

As such, the storytelling scatters and the emotional connection that should be the heart of such a book seems distant. Nevertheless, the history is such an important one, and this book adds to the canon that will contribute to it being remembered. For me, it introduces me to the Oneg Shabbat Archive, an aspect of history with which I was unfamiliar. The more I read about this time period, the more I realize still needs to be captured and remembered.

About the Book

On a November day in 1940, Adam Paskow becomes a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Jews of the city are cut off from their former lives and held captive by Nazi guards to await an uncertain fate. Weeks later, he is approached by a mysterious figure with a surprising request: Would he join a secret group of archivists working to preserve the truth of what is happening inside these walls?

Adam agrees and begins taking testimonies from his students, friends, and neighbors. He learns about their childhoods and their daydreams, their passions and their fears, their desperate strategies for safety and survival. The stories form a portrait of endurance in a world where no choices are good ones.

One of the people Adam interviews is his flatmate Sala Wiskoff, who is stoic, determined, and funny—and married with two children. Over the months of their confinement, in the presence of her family, Adam and Sala fall in love. As they desperately carve out intimacy, their relationship feels both impossible and vital, their connection keeping them alive.

But when Adam discovers a possible escape from the Ghetto, he is faced with an unbearable choice: whom can he save, and at what cost ?

Inspired by the testimony-gathering project with the code name Oneg Shabbat, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Grodstein draws readers into the lives of people living on the edge. Told with immediacy and heart, We Must Not Think of Ourselves is a piercing story of love, determination, and sacrifice.

About the Author

(from the author's website)
Lauren Grodstein is the author of five novels, including the Read with Jenna selection We Must Not Think of Ourselves, New York Times bestseller A Friend of the Family and the Washington Post Book of the Year The Explanation for Everything.

Lauren’s work has been translated into French, Turkish, German, Hebrew, and other languages, and her essays and reviews have been widely published. She teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in New Jersey with her husband and children.

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