Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford

On Wednesday evening, I will be at a local Synagogue for an evening of remembrance to commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), which takes place from Wednesday evening to Thursday evening. There, I will hear poems read out by teenagers, a testimonial from a Holocaust survivor, a speech by two nuns from the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary (which was originally founded in Germany and supports Holocaust survivors) and light candles for named Holocaust victims. 

Today on Off-the-Shelf Books, I have my review of The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elizabeth Gifford. 

The Good Doctor of Warsaw
By Elizabeth Gifford
Published by Corvus (1 February 2018)

Publisher's description
'You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.'
Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha's mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.
As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day...
Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.
Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland's greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak. 

My verdict
I had already heard of Dr Janusz Korczak before I read The Good Doctor of Warsaw, having seen a brief mention of him in the book (and film) The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman. My eldest son visited Poland earlier this year and learnt more about his orphanage, visiting some key Holocaust locations in and around Warsaw. But while I knew a little about his story, The Good Doctor of Warsaw really brought him and the children he cared for to life.

This is a true story written like fiction, in easy-to-read prose and dialogue, yet I can't describe this as an 'easy read.' It's a powerful book - traumatic and heartbreaking in places, yet also uplifting and hopeful in others. A love story, not just between Misha and Sophia, but also between Dr Korczak and the children that he refused to abandon. Dr Korczak may not have been their biological father, but he treated all of them as his own, putting his own life at risk while trying to keep them safe and protecting them from the horrors of the Holocaust, right until the bitter end.

The book begins before the war, providing a calm and happy contrast to the rising tension and growing fear of the Jewish community, and then the creation of the Warsaw ghetto. The book is realistic and well-researched. The descriptions of Warsaw and the ghetto are difficult to read at times, but such an important part of the reading experience, understanding the despair and horrors felt by all of the people who lived there.

The Good Doctor of Warsaw is an important book, one that needs to be read - not just to remind us how quickly prejudice can escalate into genocide, but also as a legacy for the future. We are currently living through a period when holocaust denial and antisemitism are on the rise once more in Europe, and within the UK itself, reminding many people of 1930s Germany.

Reading this book (and similar books) will ensure that we (and future generations) will never forget the worst of humanity and how easy it is to turn a blind eye.

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