Words to Outlive Us is not the book to take with you on a cruise. There’s nothing pleasant, nothing enjoyable about this compilation of misery and despair written by those who suffered and/or perished in Warsaw more than half a century ago. Looking back at other wars, other occupations, other examples of abuse twists the stomach and breaks the heart. Who needs it? However, this testimony should be required reading for anyone who aspires to higher office. It’s also something that I would recommend to students of history, psychology, political science and religion.
After the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, they instituted policies aimed at first isolating Poland’s Jewish population, then congregating them into smaller and smaller urban spaces, then starving and abusing them and finally exterminating them. This was a well-thought out, deliberate campaign to "cleanse" the world of a particular race and a particular religion.
In Warsaw, the Nazis began implementing their racial policies by mandating that all Jews wear a white armband bearing the Star of David. Then Jews had to move from more integrated parts of the city into traditionally Jewish neighborhoods, and Aryans living in those areas had to move to make room these people. Crews built a wall segregating a several square-block area from the rest of Warsaw. Then transports began arriving from all over occupied Europe. These activities led to the buildup of a huge population in a ghetto. Basic services were lacking due to damage inflicted on the infrastructure during the original bombardment. Disease and starvation left bodies strewn in the streets. People were beaten and executed. Then daily selections began. The Germans gathered up anyone deemed unable to work and shipped them off to "resettlement centers." As the ghetto slowly emptied, the population discovered that their friends and relatives actually were gassed in Treblinka a few miles away. As this information sank in, survivors went underground and prepared to fight. The subsequent insurrection lasted a month. By refusing to submit to the Nazi extermination machine, these young Jews amazed the world in general and the Germans in particular. Despite their bravery, very few lived to describe what happened.
Words to Outlive Us is the story of the Warsaw ghetto during all of its phases. People who escaped to the Aryan side of the city before the insurrection and lived in hiding for the rest of the war wrote some of these passages. The few survivors who somehow escaped through the sewers or lived through the horror of a concentration camp wrote others. However, many of the tales in this book came from the diaries and notes of those who died in the ghetto under a variety of circumstances. Collected and buried around the ghetto before the final cataclysm, two of three known documents were uncovered in the ruins in the late 1940s. Michael Grynberg, who was an associate of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, spent much of his life compiling and publishing them.
Reading these stories is like reaching back in time to touch those who died for no good reason other than a megalomaniac’s insane philosophy -- and a nationalistic obsession that made it okay to abuse others. It provides faces to the oft-used cliché that ‘War is hell’ and the words of an old folk song, "When will they ever learn?"