Nazis and Noir
Last year, New York magazine published “Skin,” an excerpt from Mark Jacobson’s book, The Lampshade, which traces the history of a lampshade found at a rummage sale in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The lampshade, it turns out, was made from Jewish skin at Buchenwald during the Holocaust.
In his most recent novel, The Warsaw Anagrams, award-winning author Richard Zimler takes on the story behind this disturbing yet seductive subject by sticking with the genres he knows best: the Jewish cultural novel and the thriller. It is precisely this mix of genres that makes his new novel, already a bestseller in Britain and Portugal, successful.
Upon opening The Warsaw Anagrams, I thought, Why am I reading another Holocaust novel? Why do I keep revisiting the greatest tragedy of human history? The novel is set in 1940, Warsaw, where the Nazis are about to herd 400,000 Polish Jews into the largest ghetto in Europe. Initially, nothing made Zimler’s book stand out—we’ve all read and seen The Pianist. Quite soon, though, it becomes clear that the novel is also following a classic Noir structure and is essentially a detective-style murder mystery, not just a piece of Holocaust literature, which is doubly sweet for fans of both genres.
The ghostly narrator, a once-famous sixty-seven-year-old psychiatrist named Erik Cohen, begins the story by telling his listener about his grandnephew, Adam. Erik voluntarily moves in with his niece in the ghetto before the Nazis order all Jews into the “perimeter of brick and barbed wire”—“[it was] as if someone had written us into a Kafka short story,” Erik says. The Germans quickly hoard everything, leaving those in the walled island of the ghetto without coal and pepper. They’re cold, starving, stinking, and wearing rags; Zimler writes, “The Germans dragged the Jews back to the Middle-Ages.”
One day, Adam sneaks away for coal and does not return. Like many young boys, he had become a smuggler, living a double life, sneaking through the wall to the “Other Side” in order to secure morsels of decent food and scraps of money. Eventually, his body is found tangled in the barbed wire on the border, and his leg, having been sawed off at the knee, is missing. Soon after, the similarly mutilated body of a teenage Jewess is also found on the barbed wire. Among both the Holocaust and Noir genres, the missing appendages are what makes Zimler’s story unique and haunting. They also serve as the novel’s central mystery. The fact that the missing appendages have birthmarks that the Nazis would like to use for their lampshade designs is what no character or reader could ever guess.
After the murders, Erik sets about the city playing detective. It is assumed a Nazi guard is responsible, but the Jewish councilmen mysteriously want to keep the murders a secret. In order to find out who killed his nephew and why they cut off his leg, Erik sets up interviews with one character after another, with each person advising that he see someone else, and each answer leading to another question. Some supposed allies advise that he use anagrams, as they do, to keep his identity a secret. Zimler fills his dialogue with secrets, clues (or not clues), lies, conspiracy theories, and hints at supernatural possibilities.
Instead of a sadistic Nazi, perhaps a Jewish fanatic using the body parts for some mystical ceremony is the murderer? Or maybe it is a deranged doctor with a skin fetish? Or what about a choir teacher with a pedophiliac bent? Cohen doesn’t know, but he’s set on finding out, acting more like a 1940s Hollywood private investigator rather than a psychiatrist. He is obsessed with Freud, and some of the most engaging parts of the novel are when Erik employs some basic psychoanalytic techniques during his interviews to find out what is really being said.
Zimler’s novel tackles an eerie, incomprehensible idea, one that will remain perennially fascinating for its historic bizarreness: the skin of human beings used to make lampshades. It’s certainly something to write a novel about.