Normally, I am a bit wary of Holocaust fiction because I fear it will prompt Holocaust deniers to say, “See, it’s all made up.” But whether someone writes a novel or a rigorously footnoted history, that will be what the deniers say; no matter that the novel is clearly identified as a fictional work as indeed The Warsaw Orphan is so billed.
We’ve come to a time, I suppose, when historical fiction built around the Holocaust should be weighed in the same manner that stories of a similar genre set in the French, American, or Russian Revolutions should be judged: Is it a good story? Did it hold your interest? Were the characters believable? Did you take away any lessons from the story?
To all four of those questions, I would have to answer yes in the case of The Warsaw Orphan. It is a love story that brings together Emilia, a teenage Christian heroine and orphan, whose family members were killed by the Nazis for trying to help a Jewish family, and Roman, a slightly older Jewish boy, whose family was forced to live and suffer in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The two met after Emilia agreed to work with Sara, a nurse whose humanitarianism was so unknown to the Nazis that she was allowed nearly unlimited access to the ghetto to examine Jews for typhus. Secretly she did what she could to smuggle children out of the ghetto to safety.
The story is told in alternating voices, a chapter or two “narrated” by Roman, followed by a chapter or two “narrated” by Emilia. We learn well before they do that both are idealists, well suited to each other.
Their love develops amid the hardship, deaths, and destruction of the Nazis’ genocidal war against the Jews. They not only have a common cause, but they also have suffered similar family tragedies, and in fleeting moments of quiet, there is also a romantic, yet chaste, attraction for each other.
The story builds up to the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, and tells of another general uprising later in the war by the non-Jewish populace of Warsaw. We see the determination of both youngsters to protect their families (Emilia’s by adoption) and to strike back at the Nazis, however dangerous that might be. Matters take a dramatic turn after the army of the Soviet Union pushes the Germans out of Warsaw, and subsequently occupies the Polish capital.
This novel will engross audiences ranging from young adults to their very senior counterparts.
The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer; 2021, Graydon House; ISBN 9781525-895999; 394 pages, $17.99.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World