We Must Not Think of Ourselves by Lauren Grodstein

Built squarely on sturdy scaffolding, author Lauren Grodstein’s new novel titled We Must Not Think of Ourselves is a fictionalized recounting of daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Grodstein acknowledges the novel relies heavily on the factual Oneg Shabbat (Oyneg Shabes) Archive. Led by Emmanuel Ringelbum, written in Yiddish, the secret record-keeping organization compiled firsthand accounts of “normal life” inside. Grodstein structures her novel on one archivist, a teacher, the fictitious Adam Paskow.


Before the German invasion of Poland, Adam Paskow felt lucky. A secular Jew, educated at Warsaw University, Adam taught English in the Polish school system. He adored his Catholic wife, Katia Duda, and Gruby, their pampered cat. After Kasia’s untimely death, Adam’s father-in-law, Henryk, an influential government officer, felt anxious about Adam’s safety under German occupation, citing the upsurge of restrictive laws for Jews.


With a promise to get a kennkarte - false identification to enable Adam to flee Poland - Henryk offered to pull strings to secure the best living accommodations for Adam inside the ghetto where Jews were now forced to reside. Henryk repeatedly assured Adam he’d care for Adam’s apartment until his return. Naïve and optimistic, Adam threw some books, a few belongings into his satchel, grabbed Kasia’s necklace- a wedding present from his in-laws- and departed to become a prisoner.    


Facing the grim fact his father-in-law had deceived him, Adam ends up in a tiny, squalid apartment also housing two other families and five emaciated children—who spent their days stealing, smuggling, bartering for food. Finding purpose amid the chaos and deprivation, Adam teaches English poems in a dank basement to six ghetto kids. They loved Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If" and adored Adam. His students willingly participated being interviewed about their past, which Adam recorded and turned over for the Oneg Shabbat Archive.


One of Adam’s students, fifteen-year-old Szifra Joseph, a beautiful blonde girl, disquieted Adam. He noticed Szifra’s cozying up to several Nazi guards, naively optimistic they would help her and her two younger brothers to get out “in a few months.” Without passing judgment, Adam understood Szifra’s promiscuity would be in vain.  


What kept Adam sane was teaching and interviewing the students for the Oneg Shabbat Archive, volunteering at “Aleynhilf,” a much-needed aid society, and nightly visits from Sala Wiskoff whose husband, “a sound sleeper,” rested steps away from Sala’s nocturnal rendezvous to Adam’s bed.


As deportations increased, everyone’s chances of survival diminished. Adam dared hope Kasia’s precious diamond necklace might buy him a kennkarte. But when Adam discovered a former dead student with two children’s ID cards in her possession, he was faced with a harrowing choice. Who would be the fitting beneficiaries of these passports to life?