Thrilling murder mystery set in the Warsaw Ghetto

By Joseph Peschel
July 7, 2011

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Part murder mystery and part historical fiction, Richard Zimler’s latest novel, “The Warsaw Anagrams,’’ renews the impact of the large-scale atrocities committed by the Nazis on millions of Jews by comparing them to the specific and gruesome murder of a child. Jewish folklore, anagrams, deceit, and treachery all play a part in a novel that successfully makes personal a massacre whose scope is all too easy to diminish by quoting a mostly abstract number: 6 million.

It’s late December 1941: Erik Benjamin Cohen, more apparition than man, revisits the Warsaw Ghetto where he’d been forced to live. He’s not sure why he’s returned, but Warsaw was his birthplace. There, in the ghetto, Erik discovers one man, Heniek Corben, who can see him. Heniek considers Erik an ibbur, a ghost that walks the earth as a disembodied spirit. Erik, this ibbur, ostensibly tells his story, a memoir of his life and exploits in the ghetto from late 1940 to early 1941. It’s written down by Heniek.

In September of 1940, Erik, a secular Jew and psychiatrist in his late 60s, moves from his comfortable apartment to the Warsaw Ghetto in anticipation of the Nazi order to relocate. He stays with his niece Stefa and 9-year-old grandnephew Adam. Food is scarce; children smuggle contraband and prostitute themselves; and the Nazis rape even elderly women. Soon, Adam, who’s been involved in smuggling, vanishes. Later, his body, naked and right leg severed, is discovered tangled in a barbwire fence. No one knows who’s responsible for the boy’s death, why he was killed, or why his leg was cut off. So, Erik and his lifelong friend Izzy set out to investigate the boy’s murder and to discover a reason for the mutilation.

The investigation often takes them outside the ghetto’s borders. They uncover murders of similarly mutilated children and suspect everyone: Nazis, Jews, Polish collaborators, apathetic Christians, or a conspiracy thereof. The mother of a murdered and mutilated girl thinks the children’s parts are being used to create a golem, a magical creature, “[t]o protect us.’’ The investigation is hindered by the Nazis, and the ghetto’s Jewish officials provide little help. Soon, though, Erik and Izzy make progress. They learn from the Resistance to use anagrams for places and names - a way for Jews to shield their communications from the Germans. Erik starts to believe names have a certain power to alter destiny and that anagrams provide a way of “[r]earranging things to fit the new world we’re living in.’’

Zimler has cleverly created a novel whose story is really Heniek’s - his name and that of his alter ego Erik are anagrams. Heniek is religious and superstitious; Erik is pragmatic and claims he’s an atheist, though he suffers bouts of religiosity and superstition. In almost every major scene, Zimler not only demonstrates linkage between the slaughter of Jews and Adam’s murder but he explicitly states the connection: “Adam’s death and the fate of all Jews [are] linked.’’

Zimler’s a good writer who maintains his story’s suspense but prevents it from devolving into a commonplace page-turner. The novel has some weak spots, though. One scene unfortunately comes across as melodrama when our sexagenarian heroes are saved from the Gestapo by a strong, middle-age woman with a spade. There are a few stylistic errors and anachronisms that a good editor should’ve caught, too.

Still, “Anagrams’’ is a thrilling and solemn story that depicts evil in a realistic way, despite the metafictional trappings. It portrays Nazis as murderers who “wanted to sever all holiness from the world,’’ a generally apathetic world that needs reminding of the existence and danger of human malevolence.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer in South Dakota, can be reached at or through his website at


Overlook, 323 pp., $25.95