In a grisly fictional memoir, a Polish Jew recounts his years in the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi concentration camps.
First-time author Cornell’s novel gives an account of one man’s horrific experiences during World War II. As a boy, Henryk Frankowski and his family were hauled off by German authorities, first to the Warsaw ghetto and then to concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. Enduring dehumanizing scenes of utter degradation, Henryk grew into a young man during his four years in the camps, as the authorities separated him from his parents and siblings. He and his fellow prisoners suffered monstrous brutality: Guards killed or beat them for the slightest offense or for none at all; they worked as slave laborers under intolerable conditions, subsisting on meager rations of revolting swill. Rats and prisoners fed on corpses of dead inmates; the crematoria couldn’t keep up with the swelling stacks of cadavers. Crafted in the form of Henryk’s memoir as an old man in the U.S., the novel creates powerful images of incredible viciousness and, in reflection, of human strength and courage. The narrative has many weaknesses, however. For instance, the device of Henryk’s mother’s ring, which she gives to him to show the power of love and family, feels contrived. Characterization is weak: Cornell doesn’t give readers a full portrait of Henryk’s mother beyond the love one would expect in any normal mother-child relationship, or of his siblings and father. Though the writing is serviceable and spare, anachronistic words don’t fit the era or the narrator: “hassle,” “win-win,” and “spacey” have too much of a hollow, contemporary American ring. More dialogue would have helped flesh out the novel’s characters, too. Readers know little about Henryk’s family, fellow prisoners or overseers beyond the suffering of the first two and the brutality of the latter. By the time Henryk emerges from the camps at war’s end, weighing only 68 pounds, the book has shown much more about the camps in general than about his compatriots. Still, the sheer inhumanity and cruelty deserve retelling.
A powerful if flawed portrayal of the Holocaust’s barbarity and one man’s will to survive.