The Train to Warsaw

By Ursula Brantley

The German occupation of Poland in 1939 marked the beginning of hell on earth for over half a million Jewish residents in and around Warsaw. From October 1939 until the end of the Warsaw Uprising in May 1943, thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children died in the ghetto or were sent to their deaths at nearby camps Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzac. Those who were able to escape the walls of the ghetto continued to live in trepidation as they trekked to safer areas. Gwen Edelman’s The Train To Warsaw is the tale of two Warsaw ghetto survivors. The couple, who lost contact in 1942, reconnected years later in London. This story is of their journey back to their homeland after escaping the ghetto walls 40 years prior.

Edelman’s short novel is the story of Jascha and Lilka, two Jews who fell in love while housed in the squalor of the Warsaw ghetto. In July 1942, the Nazis began mass transports from Warsaw to Treblinka where around 900,000 human beings met their fate in a short amount of time. The couple escaped the ghetto separately and assumed the other didn’t survive until a chance meeting in London in June 1949.

 Jascha, who wrote his experiences down on butcher’s paper, became a world-renowned author and speaker after the publication of his memoir The Way Down. After 40 years, Jascha received a letter asking him to return to his homeland to give a reading to current residents. During their trip back to Poland, Jascha and Lilka find that nothing is the same. They also discover that after all these years there are still many things they’ve never shared with one another. 

The graceful composition of Edelman’s soul piercing accounts allows the reader to feel merely a mustard seed of the anguish and grief that these individuals endured and continue to endure decades after liberation. Her picturesque imagery of pre-war Warsaw, wartime Warsaw, and Post-war Warsaw display the drastic abduction of vitality from an entire country and its inhabitants. Edelman’s novel explores how the effects of trauma truly last a lifetime. Though liberation gave survivors freedom, it didn’t bring the nightmares to an end. The journey back to Poland gave them time to reflect on what was, what is, and grants them the opportunity to speak freely on moments they’ve never dared to be vocal about. Regardless of how some may think or feel, there’s no denying that the Holocaust took a toll on generations. Its survivors and their descendants are a testament to the Nazis failed attempt to eradicate an entire race of innocents and the resilience of those still standing.