Today The Good Doctor of Warsaw is published so happy publication day to Elisabeth Gifford. A big thank you to her and Corvus for sending me this truly wonderful book to review.
‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’
Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.
As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day…
Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.
A couple of weeks ago I was at the Imperial War Museum in London. Although I’ve been a few times before, I hadn’t visited the Holocaust exhibition, so I did this time. There’s an age limit on the exhibition and it’s easy to see why. It’s traumatic to say the least and so it should be. We should never stop being shocked by the horror of the Holocaust.
Although there is plenty of evidence for the Holocaust in terms of photos and documents, fiction has the ability to take the facts and make them alive again for us today. Elisabeth Gifford has done just that in The Good Doctor of Warsaw. It’s not easy to recreate a setting that’s so evocative of the period. Kate Atkinson did this extremely well with her Blitz scenes in Life After Life and A God In Ruins. Similarly, William Ryan told the story of the SS Rest Hut in A Constant Soldier and brought original photos to life. Often, the Eastern Front of WW2 is forgotten and the unprecedented destruction of Warsaw is not remembered. I think The Good Doctor of Warsaw will rectify that.
The novel is based on the true story of Dr Janusz Korcsak, a Polish Jew and the founder of a large orphanage in Warsaw. He was also a well-known paediatrician and wrote many books on raising children. He even had his own radio show until anti-Semitic pressure forced him off the airwaves. Misha and Sophia were volunteers at the orphanage and very much in love. The novel tells their amazing story as well as Korcsak.
The book starts before the war when life was still fairly idyllic. Korcsak used to take the children to summer camp and the last one of 1939 is brought vividly to life, not least because Misha and Sophia become engaged. Despite the gathering storm clouds of war, hope is at the heart of this novel. I was worried that this would be a heavy story, given the subject matter, but Elisabeth Gifford has written this with a remarkable lightness of touch. There are several points of view, including some of the children, and they weave in and out of each other creating the pattern of the story. Written in the present tense, there is an immediacy to the novel.
I read this during Holocaust Memorial Day and I can’t think of a more apt book. Some of the people that I read about at the Imperial War Museum were in the story. Adam Czeriakow was the head of the Jewish Council that was supposedly in charge of the ghetto. He was a friend of Korcsak’s and did what he could for him and the orphans but in the long run, it wasn’t enough.
Despite the hope, the harrowing parts are there as well. Elisabeth Gifford hasn’t shied away from this and there were times when I stopped reading and just sobbed. There were approximately half a million Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than 1% survived. They were taken to Treblinka. The SS had told Czeriakow that it was a work camp. It wasn’t. By the time Czeriakow realised, it was far too late.
We’re supposed to learn from history but genocides around the world since WW2 prove otherwise. There were two passages that stood out for me when considering this.
‘So many years to build bridges of understanding between two cultures. Moments to tear it down.’
A conversation between Korcsak and Czeriakow, starting with Korcsak.
‘ “...But now here’s a puzzle. What are all these sections of wall for? Yet more madness?”
“All I know about them is that the Jewish Council has had to pay for them and supply the labour.” ‘
The very best historical fiction illuminates the past to help makes sense of the present. The Good Doctor of Warsaw is such a book. Heartbreak and hope entwined together.
You can buy The Good Doctor of Warsaw and find other books by Elisabeth Gifford here.
About the author
Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has written articles for The Times and the Independent and has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She is married with three children and lives in Kingston upon Thames.