Monday, June 16, 2008

John Hersey: The Wall

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I had to look up the Polish Ghetto after reading John Hersey's "The Wall" to see if it was fiction or historical fiction. Hersey tells the (historical) story of the Nazi establishment of the ghetto in Warsaw and the eventual shrinking of the ghetto, deportation of Jews, and Jewish resistance from the perspective of the archives created by the (fictional) Noach Levinson. There is good news and bad news in this review: The good news is that I finished this book. The bad news (frequent readers of, if there are any, will have noticed the recent drop off in book reviews) is that it took me forever to finish this book. I don't know if it was the style- assorted archival episodes from various members of N.L.'s "family"- of the book, or Hersey's writing, but this book just seemed to help me fall asleep. On the other hand, it is a gripping story that I clearly hadn't heard before, and that will stay with me for awhile.

N.L. is the Jewish archivist who takes it upon himself to narrate the lives of his adopted "family" by writing down their stories, as they live them. He buries his archive, which is then recovered, years later, by one of the resistance heroes. We get events choppily, and occasionally out of sequence, and from many characters. Sometimes it is hard to keep track of what is happening, and more often, it is hard to keep track of who is who. As the Jews start to get deported, and the "family" declines in number, it is easier to remember the main characters. The plot is not very important until near then end of the book when the tension mounts. Mainly, the book is driven by the underlying sense of desperation and sheer lunacy of humanity: Who DOES this? Who herds people like sheep into train cars and kills them by the tens of thousands? How do the people left behind live with themselves? What do they do when they don't have a choice? What does it mean to be a Jew when being a Jew means being killed by the thousand?

Hersey's story is a bigger one than that of the ghetto, and raised questions for me, when I was awake enough to think about them. What do we do when our lives are turned upside down? When forced to chose between our own lives and those of our parents, what choice do we make? Do we stand and fight against an enemy that is surely going to defeat us or do we flea/capitulate? Do we cooperate with potential allies who we may agree with on details if the end goal is a common one (defeat this enemy)? When it seems like we can't stand it any longer, how much longer can we REALLY tolerate the intolerable?