The Wallby Published 12 Mar 1988
Riveting & compelling, The Wall tells the inspiring story of forty men & women who escape the dehumanizing horror of the Warsaw ghetto. John Hersey's novel documents the Warsaw ghetto both as an emblem of Nazi persecution & as a personal confrontation with torture, starvation, humiliation & cruelty--a gripping, visceral story, impossible to put down.
"The Wall" Reviews
In the Warsaw Ghetto there was an underground group of archivists known as the Oyneg Shabbes. Their function was to chronicle the Nazi atrocities for posterity. These journals were famously buried in parts of the ghetto. Some were later discovered; others weren't. John Hersey writes this novel in the form of one of these fictitious journals. He reports the conversations he has with a group of disparate characters, including a Jewish Policeman, members of the Jewish council, smugglers, Gestapo informers and fighters. It's a form that allows him to load the book with information, cram in as much of his research as possible - in other words it gives him the overview scope of a non-fiction book. What's lost in this process is dramatic tension. The individual characters are dwarfed by all the historical information. Also, various genuine journals have survived so why write or read a fictitious one? If historical novels are to provide us with an experience that eludes non-fiction books, it's critical they press us up much more closely to the events described through an empathy with the central characters. In many ways The Wall is the novelist playing safe - he is admitting his own limitations by cocooning himself in a bunker and relying on other voices to tell him what happened. For me he could have been imaginatively braver; he could have embraced the spirit of fiction more daringly instead of submitting so conscientiously to chronicling facts. Fiction at its best transcends fact. (Lauren Binet playfully examined the fact vs fiction conflict so brilliantly in his novel HHhH.)
I recently read a real journal of the Ghetto which got me interested in the subject and one of the fascinating things about it was the profusion of untrue rumour or, in modern parlance, fake news. Fake news abounded in the ghetto where virtually all contact with the outside world was cut off. The populace was made all the more insecure by not having a clue what to believe and what to disbelieve. Intelligence deteriorated into ignorance and ignorance is the first step to mindlessness, to dehumanisation. Hersey has the hindsight to correct all the fake news. So, most of what he writes is uncannily true - except, conversely, it wasn't true in spirit because often he was giving his archivist his own hindsight. What this means, is this novel occupies a kind of hinterland between fiction and non-fiction - but again without the irony Binet masters in HHhH.
As I said, the form of the novel, reported conversations with his cast of characters, might allow him to load the novel with information from different perspectives but it doesn't favour dramatic tension. Never is this more apparent than during the uprising itself, perhaps the most difficult of all ghetto events to imagine, and this is the weakest part of the novel - probably because it's also the hardest part of the true story to research. Most participants died, survivors only experienced the fight against the Nazis in a piecemeal fashion. The most baffling aspect of the uprising was how so few individuals completely untrained in handling weapons managed to hold out longer against the Germans than the entire Polish nation. You can't help wondering why the Nazis fled so easily. It's hard to believe many were killed by individuals firing a loaded weapon with so little ammunition for the first time in their lives from great distances. Without wanting to belittle the achievements of the Jewish fighters in any way you have to assume that the SS regiments engaged in the ghetto fighting, unlike the Wehrmacht, were a cowardly bunch. Typical bullies in other words. They didn't like being shot at.
There's a lot of wisdom in this novel and, despite its flaws, it does give a comprehensive picture of what life in the Warsaw Ghetto entailed so I'd recommend it if you're interested in the subject matter. I'd also recommend it to lovers of dystopian fiction as the Warsaw Ghetto might serve as the archetypal end of time experience for anyone who lived there.
I am not surprised if you have not heard of this book, but please, please read it. It's one of the most incredible pieces of literature I have ever picked up. It is the archives of a man named Noach Levinson who lived through the Warsaw ghetto and chronicled in minute detail his experiences and the lives of those around him. It is both fascinating and terribly heartbreaking to see the way in which the Jews in Warsaw were systematically destroyed through the eyes of one of their own. I have never read a book on the subject that even comes close to the depth of knowledge and feeling in The Wall.
Brilliantly written ... the part I've read so far forces the reader to feel the relentless closing of the ghetto
Author John Hersey was a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, best known for his small first person account of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, called Hiroshima.
And when he writes historical fiction, as he does in The Wall, it is very close to actual events. Based on the real documents found buried inside the destroyed Jewish ghetto of Warsaw after WWII ended, it tells the story of the Jews who were trapped there by the Nazis who took over Poland in 1939, and the escalating determination to wipe out these people by their oppressors.
But The Wall also is about, not just destruction, but a determination to survive under the most harrowing of conditions. Hersey writes this novel as if it were the journals of one of the characters. He observes and reports on the events of the community...from the trivial to the momentous. He also documents the noose tightening around the community as the years of the war go by, and the Nazi determination to destroy all Jews grew ever stronger.
At times the book is utterly heart-breaking. Tears were in my eyes as the underground fighters had to kill a baby to keep its cries from leading the Nazis to their hiding place, which would have been death for all of them. And yet...somehow Hersey is able to write into this always an underlying hope...a ray of life...a value that while there is life, there is still hope.
Many of the events that Hersey fictionalizes here actually happened, or events very close to them did. That he able to humanize these horrible atrocities, that he is able to individualize this mass destruction, is a gift of a master storyteller and journalist.
The Wall is a devastating work...because of the reality right behind the fiction. It is also an uplifting work, because of the hope that is in life.
In my ever increasing interest in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, I've been gathering books from various libraries to try and wrap my brain around the perilous and courageous act of the Jews of Warsaw during 1943. One of the books in my pile was The Wall by John Hersey, a 640 page novel that I honestly wasn't sure I'd get around to any time soon. But then I read the first few pages and I was hooked. It was a lot to take in. I feel like I need to read it a few more times to fully understand everything.
The story opens with four survivors of the Warsaw ghetto finding the buried Levinson Archives. Noach Levinson is a Jewish historian who documents life in the ghetto from 1939-1943. Levinson—a recluse—is forced to move in with strangers when the ghetto is formed. But they become like family to him as the story progresses. The cast of characters are diverse and entertaining. Levinson finds, to his great surprise, that he rather enjoys being apart of a family. He writes of the day to day struggles of living in filth, poverty, and persecution. You see the hard and sometimes horrible choices people had to make in order to survive. When the Nazis start to deport the Jews to Treblinka, the Jews make the choice to fight back. They begin smuggling in weapons and the Z.O.B. (Jewish Fighting Organization) is formed. The family is broken up by the "relocation" but those who are left take up arms, build bunkers, and prepare to fight back.
It's all fictional, but the archives are so believable that at first I thought they were real. The historical accuracy is amazing, and although Hersey changed the names of actual historical people, I was able to recognize some of them from previous research. Noach resembles Emmanuel Ringelblum, Jewish writer whose archives were discovered buried in an underground bunker. Rachel Apt's leadership is very similar to Zivia Lubetkin. Yitzhok, I believe, is intended to represent Mordechai Anielewicz. The head of the Judenrat is most definitely based on Adam Czerniaków.
The writing is beautiful. It's one of the books you feel enriched by every time you pick it up. It's full of pain and bravery, horror, and determination. It's a hidden gem of a book that I'm very glad that I found.
“You're not impatient any more. Then you were in a hurry, because you thought you could encompass everything in your life. You wanted to learn everything and experience everything and be everybody. In a way, that was charming and delightful in you: I used to write in my notebooks that you were zestful. But it also made you seem confused. You did things in fits and starts. You learned as a stammerer talks ... Today, you are not in such a hurry. I think you have decided that you can do only a few things at all well, and they are more than enough.” —John Hersey