The novels of Richard Zimler shine compelling light on overlooked aspects of history — and along the way they provide plenty of myth and lore to delight any student of esoterica. "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" (2000), for instance, describes the mystical practices of 16th century kabbalists as it explores the plight of Jews in Inquisition-era Spain. Other novels of his, including "Guardian of the Dawn" and "Hunting Midnight," explore storylines that are like intriguing variations on what one finds in "Kabbalist." An occasional contributor to our pages in the past, Zimler also keeps his own Jewish heritage firmly focused in his stories.
In his most recent novel, "The Warsaw Anagrams," published earlier this year by Overlook Press, Zimler tells a ghostly tale of murder set in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Along with his regular book tour responsibilities, Zimler traveled last month to Poland to read and discuss his novel with readers there. Did he find audiences receptive or hostile to his novel, which examines a tragic period in their history? I caught up with him on his return.
"The Warsaw Anagrams" is set in the Warsaw ghetto where some of your father's uncles and aunts were interned before being sent to the death camps. How did this personal connection influence your writing?
When my grandparents emigrated from Poland to New York around 1905, they left behind nine brothers and sisters, as well as many other relatives. None of them survived the Holocaust. So I always suspected that I'd one day research what happened to them. Writing about the kinds of experiences they would have had in the Jewish ghettos was perfect for me because my passion is stimulated by exploring the lives of people who have been largely forgotten or whose voices have been systematically silenced. It was "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" that taught me that about myself. That novel is about a Jewish family that survives the Lisbon Massacre of 1506, a largely forgotten pogrom in which 2,000 Jews were murdered.
How long were you in Poland? What places did you visit or was your stay mainly in Warsaw? How did this tour come about?
I spent three days in Warsaw, two in Poznan and one in Lodz. I'm the first person in my family to go back to Poland since the Holocaust, so it was a very emotional journey for me. This is the fourth novel of mine to come out in Poland, and when my publisher discovered I had written a book set in Warsaw, he was keen on having me do a tour.
I imagine that critics and readers there would be particularly sensitive to a novel set in the Warsaw ghetto. What were reactions like?
Most Jews I know regard Polish society as anti-Semitic to the core, so I was worried that I would encounter a lot of hostility. But all the readers I met and journalists who interviewed me were generous and enthusiastic. What I learned from my conversations with them was that educated Poles regard the Holocaust as a supremely solemn and fundamental event. That came as a very welcome surprise.
What most interested reviewers and readers was the way I recreated daily life in the Warsaw ghetto and my references to Jewish mysticism — to kabbalah. For instance, the high school kids I spoke to in Warsaw were very curious about my choice of a ghost — an "ibbur" — as the narrator of the book, and also about his use of anagrams. Readers did sometimes express one concern, however: that my portrayal of Poles may have been too negative. In "The Warsaw Anagrams," the narrator, Erik Cohen, is denounced by Polish Christian neighbors while in hiding and taken to a labor camp. Unfortunately, it was a fate that awaited many Jews in hiding. And yet the majority of Poles I spoke to seemed to truly believe that most of their parents and grandparents did their very best to protect their Jewish neighbors, which just isn't true. The most reliable estimates are that about five percent of the Polish population — one person in 20 — came to the aid of the country's Jews.
Izzy, one of "Anagrams'" main characters, keeps his sense of humor even when terrible things are happening to him and the narrator. How did you avoid giving the book a depressing tone?
What came to interest me most about the ghetto was the quiet heroism of its residents — by people like Izzy, a clockmaker who has his beautiful shop closed by the Nazis and who lives in his small, nearly lightless workshop. And who resists by refusing to lose his humanity, including his wonderful sense of humor. I felt it was vitally important to write about people like him because one of my main goals was to restore individuality to its residents, to go beyond the statistics. As my narrator Erik says in the book, "We owe uniqueness to our dead at the very least." He and Izzy — their courage and camaraderie — keep the book hopeful.
Your novels have always engaged a mystical element in their structures. For this novel, how did you hit upon that idea of having a spirit for a narrator?
My idea for the first chapter was to write about an elderly Jewish psychiatrist, Erik Cohen, walking back to Warsaw after surviving a Nazi labor camp. But on the very first page of the book, while inside his head, I wrote, "I'm a dead man." I meant it figuratively — that Erik had lost all his friends and relatives and no longer had any reason to continue living. But those words gave me a whole new idea for the book. I realized that Erik was indeed dead. He was an "ibbur," a spirit that remains in this world to fulfill a duty or "mitzvah" that he failed to fulfill in life. But what was it? After he returns to Warsaw, he comes upon a man on a ghetto street who, unlike everyone else, is able to see and hear him. So Erik tells this visionary man about his life in the ghetto — in particular, about how he tracked down the murderer of his beloved grandnephew — in the hopes of figuring out what duty he still needs to perform in our world.
You've said in past interviews that you plan very little before starting to write a novel. If that's true, then how do you go about your research? Did the initial concept of "Anagrams" change drastically over the course of writing?
I usually start a novel with an idea or image that obsesses me. In this case, I felt I had to write about daily life in the Warsaw ghetto, in part because I knew so little about it. Were there hospitals and clinics? Were Christians allowed to visit their Jewish friends in the ghetto? How did the black market work? I ordered about 20 books about ghetto life and started reading and taking notes. I also visited Warsaw in 2008, mostly to walk in the historical center of the city. Being there helped me visualize the ghetto as a "Jewish urban island" cut off from the rest of Warsaw and the world by a brick wall topped with barbed wire. That image captivated me. It still does. To be confined to an island in the middle of a big city seemed to me a unique — and terrible — experience worth exploring. And I hoped that if I could bring readers there and have them get to know Erik and Izzy, that they would be moved by the experience.