The Train to Warsaw: A Novel, by Gwen Edelman, is an interesting work of historical fiction, based on two characters’ impressions of the city on a postwar return trip.
Jascha and Lilka have returned to Warsaw after having escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and the atrocities and horrors of World War II. They left individually but managed to reunite years later, after the war.
Jascha is a writer and has been invited to give a reading in Warsaw, forty years after escaping. He is reluctant to go, because deep in his heart he knows that the city is not the same, and that nothing could ever replace what once was.
Lilka, on the other hand, wants to return, wants to put to rest the memories of what occurred, and the positive memories she has of a city that once was. She feels that it will be a cathartic experience and encourages Jascha to attend. He finally gives in, and so their journey begins. In the dead of a cold and snowy winter they travel back to the country they left, and back to memories, both stifled and constant.
The dialogue in the book is written without quotation marks, which made it difficult to realize who was speaking, at times. I found myself having to go back and reread some of the dialogue to ascertain who was the one talking. This made it a more difficult read than necessary.
Their journey through Warsaw, through streets once walked, paths, sights and buildings once so familiar, AND through the area that was the Warsaw Ghetto, became very arduous for them due to the changes that have occurred. The changes of time have purposely been erased. Lilka has difficulty dealing with that, whereas Jascha knew, beforehand, what to more or less expect. He was cognizant of the reality.
Within that concept, the book depicts the individuals that Jascha and Lilka encounter with an indifference in regards to the past. Those individuals either do not want to remember the past, or still harbor antisemitism, or are too young too remember it, or were born a decade or two after the war and do not know the true history behind it. The city’s inhabitants are trying to move forward without bringing their history with them. They want to leave the emotional suitcases and other baggage behind.
The novel takes place on a train, in a hotel room and in the city, itself. With each passing moment, the discussions revolve around the past. Enfolded in those discussions are secrets from the past, that slowly come to be revealed, by both of them.
I felt the book was a bit drab and it dragged on. Of course, Jascha didn’t want to be there to begin with, and Lilka’s concepts keep referring to “what once was”, and she couldn’t let go of those perceptions. She was in shock seeing things for what they currently were, and her depressed state grew even deeper, explaining a lot of the attitude projected in The Train to Warsaw: A Novel.
I am sure that Edelman’s intent was to enhance how events of a former time affect individuals displaced from their homeland, leaving them feeling melancholy and miserable. The individuals can have a constant yearning for home, leaving a void within them. If that was her intention, she succeeded in that respect.
With all of that being said, in my opinion, the novel was okay.