by Mark H Newhouse
book review by Mihir Shah
“‘There is an emptiness inside all of us. Even you, my most logical friend, must someday find something that fills that void inside you.'”
In this final volume of Newhouse’s trilogy on the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, the Jewish community’s harrowing existence continues to be tested at astronomical levels, systematically breaking down their humanity until emptiness remains. That said, the author’s attempt to honor his upbringing and parents that were one of fewer than 5,000 survivors at Lodz by shedding light on the atrocities and persecution there is wildly successful. The phrase, “the truth shall set you free,” is tailor-made for this work of historical fiction that is authentic and fearless in simply writing what is.
As the Nazi noose closes, the Lodz Ghetto residents are reduced to living in three primary states of being: hunger, mourning, and working. Focusing on the main character from the previous books, Benny Ostrowski, Newhouse wastes no time delving into the gaping void left by the deportation of Ostrowski’s infant daughter, Regina, and wife, Miriam. Those that were spared deportation were in equally dire straits. While this third book is just as character-driven as the previous two, the heightened focus on existential themes is captured seamlessly by the empty work chairs of vanished coworkers Dr. Oskar Rosenfeld and Julian Cukier as Ostrowski grabs onto Rosenfeld’s pipe bowl he lifted from Oskar’s apartment.
Now with Jozef as his roommate, Benny’s denial toward the entire situation—the loss of his wife, child, friends—is on full display in this one moment. Almost mechanically, he and everyone remaining thrust themselves into their work because that is all that remains between them and insanity. Making matters worse, the Nazis are hell-bent on stripping away any semblance of the Jewish identity, even canceling Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The irony, of course, is not lost on readers that Yom Kippur commemorates sincere repentance and forgiveness, though there is zero intent to redeem and repent from the Nazi side.
Whether it is the outright burning down of hospitals or the gradual deportation of everyone but the most able-bodied workers, the industrial value of Lodz is a double-edged sword, leaving residents “in an envelope made of barbed wire, trigger happy, Nazi sentries.” Many questions can be posed, but the one central to this text would be how one can find purpose amid such darkness. Ostrowski’s commitment to his wife and child is admirable, and it is his reason for survival. If Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl still graced the earth, there is little doubt that Newhouse’s work would resonate with them as it embodies their same fierce spirit of survival and purpose with an uncompromising eye toward the unfolding of events. In the same vein, the introduction of Pola, the only woman in Benny’s office, leads the author to explore the need for companionship. For the longest time, Benny sees Miriam’s face in every woman. But is it betrayal to crave intimacy when one is in the eye of a seemingly never-ending storm, and uncertainty is all-encompassing?
Sometimes, hope alone is a weapon strong enough to withstand darkness. However, throughout the novel, there are unshakable graphics that will leave audiences understanding the full scope of the evil and despair in Lodz. Specifically, the desensitization to death is downright shocking. For example, twenty gallows from a public execution remain for all to see as a sign from the Nazis. Conversely, the relief that sweeps over Benny upon learning that millions of toys made from paper and trash have been delivered is heartbreaking as he holds onto the faintest hope that his baby girl might still be alive.
Nevertheless, the one moment from the many the author portrays that is especially spine-chilling and will forever be etched into memories is a truck full of residents being deported out of Lodz—likely on their way to their deaths—singing the Hatikvah in jubilation and hope. Whether Mordechai Chaim (M.C.) Rumkowski, Chairman of the Judenrat and anointed Eldest of the Jews, is the devil or the shield prolonging the inevitable fate of the Jewish residents of Lodz is up for debate, but what is undeniable is Newhouse’s ability to take one of the darkest moments of suffering in human history and portray it with a grace and clarity that returns the dignity of these myriad souls sacrificed by the doings of man.
Winner of the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award Historical Fiction Category, da Vinci Eye Finalist, and Montaigne Medal Finalist
RECOMMENDED by the US Review