Gwen Edelman’s novels, both of which begin and end on a train, belong to the ever-growing literature of the Holocaust. Trains, of course, are among this genre’s most potent figures, propelling bewildered passengers away from the comforts of civilization toward exile for the luckiest few or, for the majority, toward barbarism and slaughter. Yet even before World War II, trains featured significantly in Jewish imaginative writing. In tales such as Sholem Aleichem’s “Railroad Stories” and the Yiddish writer David Bergelson’s novella “At the Depot,” they conveyed the liminal quality of life in the diaspora, a condition of imposed impermanence and necessary adaptability.
Edelman’s books incorporate these themes with remarkable economy and finesse. Her first novel, “War Story” (2001), told of a woman’s railway journey from Paris to Amsterdam to attend the funeral of her former lover, a much older playwright and novelist who escaped — physically, at least — the Nazi conflagration in Europe. By zeroing in on the woman’s memories of her departed love, the author used an elegant kind of novelistic synecdoche to hint at the enormity of loss shared by all Holocaust survivors.
Edelman’s new book benefits from the same restricted focus and suggested vastness. This time, the lens is on a long-married couple, Jascha and Lilka, who are traveling from London to Warsaw, the city of their youth. It is sometime in the 1980s, before the fall of communism and four decades since they both escaped independently from the Warsaw ghetto. Each thought the other was dead until they were reunited in London, where they married. The couple has lived ever since among the British, “in exile,” as Lilka puts it, “from all the colors and sounds of life as I knew it.”
Jascha is an acclaimed writer, often compared with Kafka and Gogol, having made his reputation with a surreal novel about his wartime experiences called “The Way Down.” Now in his mid-60s, he has been invited back to Warsaw to give a reading at a literary organization called Writers’ House. Throughout all the years since he left, Jascha has avoided revisiting his poisoned homeland. “Poland is a morgue,” he informs Lilka. “I want to return to Warsaw like I want the cholera.” But Lilka yearns to see her childhood home once more, and so, in the midst of a snowy December, off they go.
For Edelman’s characters, travel becomes an opportunity to examine their past while the landscapes flicker by outside. Jascha and Lilka reminisce about when they first met: He was 23 and roguishly handsome, known throughout the ghetto as one of its shrewdest young smugglers. She was 16, a nurse-in-training — a position arranged by her canny mother, who knew that hospital workers were less vulnerable to deportation.
How romantic all this sounds, we might think. But it is not romantic. Unsentimentally and vividly, Edelman recreates the chaos, the din and the brutality as everything was stolen from Warsaw’s Jews in the winter of 1940, and they were hounded into the ghetto, which was about the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. She emphasizes the extent to which starvation, hypothermia, illness and death in the streets were everyday realities within its walls.
The allotted ration for each Jew in the ghetto, Lilka remembers, was 186 calories per day. Thus arose the desperate commerce of Jascha and his fellow smugglers, many of whom were shot for their impudence. “You were a man of the world,” Lilka remembers. “Of a small enclosed world,” replies Jascha, “where everyone was about to die.” Those few who did manage to stay alive often did so only by betraying others. Yet there were no guarantees that those who compromised themselves — like Lilka’s mother, who attempted to improve her odds by sleeping with a German officer — would survive after all.
And what has Warsaw become in all the years since Jascha and Lilka last saw it? Dull and colorless, at Lilka’s first glance, with ungainly modern buildings hunkering under a wintry glare. “That’s Communist light,” Jascha tells her. “Where nothing must be hidden.” Few traces remain of the once-vibrant city that was closed off to the Jews, or of the ghetto that imprisoned them. Husband and wife continue to reminisce as they wander through the unfamiliar streets, surprising each other by confessing a few secrets powerful enough to unsettle their resilient marriage.
The cafes are packed with people bundled up against the cold, “sitting here,” to Jascha’s bemusement, “as though nothing ever happened.” On the night of his Writers’ House event, he shocks the well-meaning audience by reading from the most violent passages of his novel. For these Poles, the passage of time has erased culpability; for Jascha, forgetting is a luxury he can’t afford. “You can leave,” he tells his offended listeners as they make for the door, “but that doesn’t change what happened here.” In the same way, he and Lilka will take their anguish back to London, a city that won’t ever feel like home.
Rifkind is writing a book about the screenwriter Salka Viertel.
THE TRAIN TO WARSAW
By Gwen Edelman
Grove. 195 pp. $24