The Warsaw Anagrams

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall acr...

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall across Świętokrzyska street near intersection with Marszałkowska street. In the back “Magazyn Bławatny” store of Jan Tarnowski & Co. at Marszałkowska 133 street. This is not the final location of the wall on Świętokrzyska street, according to book “Getto Warszawskie” in 1941 the wall was a block farther between Zielona and Bagno streets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend the enormity of some of the stuff that happened during Word War II. The conflict itself was horrific in its scale with fighting taking place across much of the globe. Countries routinely sent dozens of aeroplanes filled to the brim with explosives across the sea to drop on population centres. But beyond the death and destruction at the front line, on the home front as we now know, something awful took place.

The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of all Jewish ghettos in Nazi occupied Europe during the war. The Nazis corralled 400,000 Jews into a tiny section of the city separated by huge barbed wire topped walls. There are various estimates as to how many of the ghetto dwellers lost their lives and how many survived. The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler tells the story of one those ghetto dwellers.

I don’t know what made me pick up this book. I played a game called Last Train Out of Warsaw, which follows a train full of Polish fleeing from the German invasion and I read a game book called Grey Ranks which portrays children of the resistance inside the ghetto walls. If you can ignore the inherent misery and despair, these games give a fascinating insight into the world of wartime Warsaw. Besides which, I fancied a change from my regular diet of science fiction.

At the start of the book, we know the protagonist is dead because he returns to Warsaw as a ghost. Once there, he relates his story to the only man who can see him and a fascinating tale unfolds. Erik is a psychologist. He can see the writing on the wall so he decides to move to the ghetto on his terms before everyone else is rounded up. He moves in with his sister and her 9-year-old son. Initially, he is resentful of the son as he has to share his bed. In time they become much closer as they come to terms with their forced confinement.

Unfortunately, just when they are getting close, Adam is murdered and Erik sets out to discover who killed him and dumped his mutilated body. Along the way he discovers things he didn’t know about Adam and other children who suffered the same fate. It is an easy read and a cracking mystery. I like the way that the essence of the Jewish culture is interwoven with the story. The odd Jewish word here and the odd reference to a Jewish custom really help to make the story authentic.

So is it miserable? Yes the despair is there, but there’s so much more. I can’t believe how much the ghetto is brought to life. There’s love, hope, ambition and people helping other people. There is smuggling, murder and suicide. There is coldness, hunger and disease. Read this if you want to know what happened and if you want to understand the pride of the people it happened to.


Not in Kansas anymore

English: Kapitanska-captain's Polish vodka

English: Kapitanska-captain’s Polish vodka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I became blase about travelling to Poland. After all, I’d been to Warsaw several times before. I remember one trip in particular when we went for a celebratory meal in a restaurant. It was a very cold January outside. Inside, it was like entering Dante‘s inferno. We travelled downstairs where the inside of the restaurant glowed red from the infernal heat of the kilns.

As we took off our coats, a waiter approached us brandishing a bottle. In heavily accented English he asked if we would like some vodka. We declined and asked for the wine list. He looked puzzled and offered the bottle again with a single word “vodka?” We gave up on the wine list and used one of the few Polish words we’d learnt. I held up 3 fingers and said “Pifco” indicating we’d like some beers. “Vodka?” was the reply.

The vodka was so cold that we found it refreshing in the searing heat of the restaurant. However, it didn’t last. The warmth of the surroundings seeped into the vodka and as the temperature rose, the drink became more and more chewy. The relief when the last of it disappeared was palpable. I couldn’t believe it when my boss called the waiter over and asked for another bottle. We all looked at him dumbfounded and he explained “We can’t just drink one bottle – they’ll think we’re poofs!”

This particular trip, however, was not to Warsaw – it was to the industrial heartland of Katowice. The plane was so small that the pilot gave the safety briefing. Katowice airport had exactly one gate, exactly one luggage carousel, exactly one x-ray arch and exactly one runway. Yet all the signage was strangely reminiscent of a larger airport. A young guy picked me up – a sheet of paper with our company logo the sole means of communication between us.

The hotel was an old KGB headquarters and seldom have I stayed in such a dour building. I checked in after a game of charades with the receptionist. Upstairs a bizarre Benny Hill style sketch played out between the prostitutes leaving cards with their phone numbers everywhere and the hotel staff getting rid of them.

I went down to the bar. Getting a drink was easy enough. Not only did I know the Polish word for beer, but there was a nice big pump I could point to. I asked for a menu and the barman looked puzzled. I mimed shovelling things into my mouth and the penny dropped. He gave me a laminated sheet which was no use to me at all – everything was in Polish characters.

I kept asking if anyone spoke English and after a while, someone had a light bulb moment. They dashed off and returned with a boy wearing a ridiculously large rubber apron and rubber gloves that looked like they might fall off any second.

“Please?” he said.

“Do you speak English?”


I thought what the hell and asked for a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. He nodded as if he understood and disappeared off to the kitchen. I sat back, wondering what manner of food lay ahead of me. After a short delay, a waiter appeared with a massive silver platter topped with a handled dome. With a flourish, he revealed my meal. Underneath was a beautifully prepared salad, topped with two slices of toast upon which stood a cube of cheese.

I couldn’t help but smile.

Number 1 or number 2?

English: Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, Os...

English: Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, Ostia Antica Nederlands: Oud-Romeins openbaar toilet Français : Latrines romaines à Ostie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are some things in life that I feel demand solitude. So when I learned that Romans built their toilets as social gathering places where men would sit side by side in long rows casually chewing the fat whilst their bowels did their best to dispose of the very same, it made my toes curl.

You can learn a lot about a society from the nature of their human waste disposal facilities. The British, for example, seem to have a higher urinal to cubicle ratio than any other nation I have visited and I’ve travelled around a bit. I assume it’s because of the relatively high national consumption of beer, but other countries with similar rates seem to get by with far fewer urinals.

The Americans build industrial strength toilets. According to many surveys and studies, Americans on average are more obese than any other nation, so it stands to reason that they consume more and therefore expel more than other people around the world. So I suppose it makes sense that their toilets are somewhat more robust, but they are epic in scale. I’m sure that I could have flushed the bed down the toilet in some of the American hotels I’ve stayed in. It doesn’t matter what’s in the pan – hit the flush and it disappears.

English: Taken by me whilst on holiday in Fran...

English: Taken by me whilst on holiday in France, at a motorway service station somewhere near Toulouse. This one is surprisingly clean, usually they are filthy. I love holidaying in France but I hate their toilets. Français : Prise par moi lors de vacances en France sur une air d’autoroute pres de Toulouse. Celle-ci est étonnamment propre, d’habitude elle sont sales. J’adore passer mes vacances en France mais je deteste leurs toilettes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The French seem to have an indifferent attitude to toilets. Bare minimalism seems to be the order of the day – sometimes literally. I remember going to a restaurant in Tours and visiting the facilities. In front of me was a porcelain moulding with two foot plates. Between them was a hole. On the wall was a faded sign that showed which way you needed to squat depending on what you had in mind. There was no door. There weren’t even fixings for a door so there had obviously never been a door.

The Germans are efficient and believe in quality. Maybe that’s why they build inspection pans into their toilets. Whatever you’ve produced is held up for you to examine to make sure it’s satisfactory before hitting the flush and consigning it to oblivion.

I’ve been to Poland a few times, mostly to Warsaw, but once – I went to Katowice. Unlike Warsaw, no-one spoke English. They have a cryptic alphabet, so I couldn’t even take a guess at what was on the menu. Unwilling to be accidentally poisoned – I gesticulated wildly and spoke loudly unit they found someone who spoke English, the washer-up. Unfortunately, the only word he seemed to know was “please”. He did well though. I asked for a toasted cheese sandwich. Out came a platter full of salad with 2 bits of toast and a lump of cheese.

When I came to go to the toilet – I was baffled. One had a circle and the other a triangle. There was no other clue as to which was which, so I took a guess. I had a 50:50 chance. I don’t know who was more surprised – me or the Polish lady I bumped into!