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Title: Bread for the Departed
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication Date: 1997
Book Condition: Very Good
About this title
Bread for the Departed details the experience of the Jewish community in Warsaw between 1940 and 1942; the final chapters take place during the mass deportation of Warsaw's Jewish community to death camps. Episodic, chaotic as the teeming ghetto itself, the novel records the inexorable breakdown of morals and loyalties that accompanied the physical deterioration of the ghetto population.
"When does a man cease to be a man?" asks Dr. Obuchowski, the ghetto physician. "Old Baum babbles something about freedom and other twaddle, and I can't understand a thing. The belly rules the world of the hungry. 'Eat, eat!' That's the cry of the last living cell and there are none that are deaf to that cry."
That cry echoes throughout the pages of Bread for the Departed, Bogdan Wojdowski's almost unbearably harrowing novel about the Warsaw ghetto from 1940 to 1942. Told in a chaotic swirl of Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and German, Wojdowski's crowning achievement loses very little in this masterful translation by Madeline G. Levine. Episodic, almost without plot, his narrative accumulates weight not through symbol but through sheer detail, amassed and related with horrific detachment. As sketched by Wojdowski, the ghetto is a Boschian nightmare, its corpses turning blue and swollen in the streets, its living skeletons tormented by cold, hunger, typhus, cockroaches, and lice. Its principal character, young David, does whatever is necessary to obtain precious bread, including risking being shot while crossing to the Aryan side of the wall to beg or barter for food. In a world where "food was dearer and more worth saving than life," an emaciated woman named Malka wanders the streets pulling up her skirts for the promise of bread, while David and his gang of starving friends pull the gold teeth from corpses in search of something to sell.
When the Germans begin to round up the Jews for deportation, David and his family must choose whether to hide, fight, or join the transports. In any case, they realize, the same fate awaits. "Why am I still alive?" asks David's father after watching his wife herded into a truck. "In order to endure. There's no alternative," his brother Yehuda gently replies. It is impossible to read these words and not think of Wojdowski, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto who took his own life in 1994. For him, perhaps, this crude will to endure was the cruelest Holocaust legacy of all. --Mary Park
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