We Must Not Think of Ourselves (2023)

by Lauren Grodstein

Critical Evaluation

“Two decades before World War II, Lauren Grodstein’s great-grandparents fled Poland’s capital city and the antisemitism that was already ascendant there. “In all likelihood,” she writes in the afterword to this accomplished sixth book, “I would not be here had they stayed.” A chilling what-if, an idea for a book. More than a century after those ancestors escaped to safety, Grodstein gives voice to the doomed denizens they might have become.

Set in the brutal Warsaw ghetto that made prisoners of more than 400,000 Jews under Nazi occupation, “We Must Not Think of Ourselves” centers on Adam Paskow, a middle-aged, nonobservant university professor who “barely remembered I was a Jew” before the Germans invaded in 1939. Still grieving the recent death of his wife, Adam moves like a man in a dream as “the fist closed slowly around us.” Taking trains, going to theaters, resting on benches — bit by inexorable bit, the ordinary stuff of life is forbidden to Warsaw Jews. Finally, they are forced from their homes and into shabby, overcrowded quarters within the city’s old Jewish section, its gates secured behind them. The gates “were locked, but we did not believe they were locked. Even after they had taken our jobs, our money, our schools. Even after they had taken our homes.” Like proverbial frogs in slowly warming water, they are shocked when things come to a boil.

Hubbard, Kim. “When They Were Going Through Hell, They Kept a Record.” The New York Times Book Review. November 27, 2023.

First Excerpt

“The man came to my classroom on December 14, 1940, at 4:40 pm. I wrote the time and date down immediately, because he asked me to write everything down immediately, and there was no reason not to comply. “All the details,” he said, “even if they seem insignificant. I don’t want you to decide what’s significant. I want you to record. You are a camera and a dictaphone, both.”

He was tall, with brown curly hair that seemed clean, newly cut. He had heavy brows and a sharp nose and all in all was handsome in a rather somber way. Heavy-lidded eyes. He spoke educated Polish with an eastern accent. His name was Emanuel Ringelblum.

“I’ve heard of you,” I said. He was the one who was organizing relief agencies, soup kitchens.

He smiled, briefly, and his face briefly warmed. ‘I’ve heard of you too. You were a teacher of foreign languages at Centralny. Now you’re teaching English here.

‘That’s right.”

“He put a hand in his pocket, took a glance around my meager classroom. “I have an archival project I’d like you to be part of, if you’re interested.” He paused as if to consider his words. “It’s important work. I’ve asked several people I know – professors, writers – to take notes on what they witness during their time here, to write down everything that’s happened from the time we wake up to when we go to sleep.

“And we do this – why?” I asked. Very few of us here needed more to do.

“It is up to us to write our own history,” he said. “Deny the Germans the last word.”

“A dry chuckle escaped me. “It’s hard to deny the Germans anything, Pan Ringelblum.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “Or perhaps, after the war, we can tell the world the truth about what happened.”

Second Excerpt

“The next evening, Filip strutted into the apartment with two large bags of chicken feet that he had traded for somewhere on the outside. He had recently turned twelve and was starting to grow; perhaps his prosperity as a trader had provided him with the requisite calories for a proper growth spurt, or perhaps the human body would do what it was designed to do even in the most absurd of circumstances. Either way, he was a good ten centimeters taller than he’d been when we’d met, and his shoulders had started to broaden. His voice was changing too, becoming deeper. I noticed it especially when he practiced his English with me. In English, he sounded almost like a man.

“I’ll trade you four feet for next week’s lesson,” I said. (The going price for English lessons was three zloty or, lately, whatever the children’s families could spare; I had no idea what the going rate was for chicken feet, since chicken was not legal for purchase in the ghetto.)

“I risked my life for these,” he said; he said it casually. “But I’ll give you a discount. Four for five zloty.”

“That’s highway robbery,” I said. “Those are just feet!”

Filip shrugged. “You hungry?” He’d grown nervy.

I sighed. My satchel was on the counter; I reached in and handed him his zloty. He plucked four feet out of one of his bags and handed me the skinny, clawlike things. They were fresh, with feathers on their anklebones and needlelike nails on the ends of the toes. They looked, frankly, disgusting. But you could boil them for a while and then fry them, and they would make an edible snack. When I was a child, we ate them frequently when my father was deployed and his government subsidy disappeared in the mail.

“So what’s it like right now on the outside, anyway?” I said, using an old kitchen knife to pare the claws off the feet.

“Better than here,” he said, watching me work with an expression of mild amusement. “But still not great.” His hair was growing in thicker than it had been before he’d shaved it for typhus, and darker too. This had happened to my own hair when I was his age; fine blondish wisps had become the coarse brownish-blondish curls that Kasia used to trim by the sink.

“How so?”

“People seem hungrier,” he said, “and there’s less in the shops. There are more beggars in the streets, and the Germans beat them up or take them away in police vans. There are still rich people, though. You can see it in the way they dress. They still have cars, jewelry. They’re still shopping.”

“Any news of the war?” Filip shrugged. It was one of the luckiest aspects of youth, this ability to be nonchalant. “I don’t know, really. I saw some headlines in the newsstand that the Germans are proceeding to Moscow, but it might be propaganda. They have a lot of the same news outside that they do in here.”