Review: The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

Authors comment extracted from comment list below: “Just to mention that The Warsaw Anagrams is currently on sale in the Kindle format at Amazon.co.uk for the absurdly low price of £1.59″.


I don’t know how long the sale will last.I rarely pre-order books as soon as I hear about them, but when I saw that Richard Zimler was about to publish a new novel I clicked a couple of times on a book-seller’s website and waited expectantly.  I have read every one of his novels which explore some intriguing corners of Jewish history, from The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996), to The Seventh Gate (2007) and know that Zimler’s novels are worth waiting for.

In this series of books we move from the 1506 massacre of Jews in Lisbon to 20th century Berlin via 16th century Goa and 19th century America – all of these books featuring the kabbalist and sage Berekiah Zarco and his like-minded descendants.

Fortunately, when The Warsaw Anagrams arrived I was pleased to discover that I was rapidly drawn into the midst of a complex  criminal investigation in a unique setting – and with touches of mysticism and Jewish philosophy thrown in.

The Warsaw Anagrams is set in 1941 Poland, most of the story taking place in the Warsaw Ghetto, with occasional (and usually disastrous) forays outside.  The story is narrated by Erik Cohen, a practicing psychiatrist before being incarcerated in the Ghetto, who we learn is a now a wandering soul, an ibbur, who has returned to revisit the scene of some terrible crimes and to pass on his story to those who will listen.  Fortunately he finds a suitable recipient for his tale in Heniek Corben who seems to take the appearance of a ghost in his stride:

“You faded away for a moment.  I think maybe – ” Ending his sentence abruptly, he held his gnarled hand above my head and blessed me in Hebrew.  “With any luck, that should do the trick” he told me cheerfully.

Realising he was probably religious, I said, “I haven’t seen any sign of God, or anything resembling and angel or demon. No ghosts, no ghouls, no vampires – nothing”.  He waved off my concerns.  “So what can I get you?  How about some nettle tea?”.

Heniek turns out to be a willing amanuensis, diligently writing down Eriks story – the result being this novel.

The book opens with Erik being forced to move in with his niece Stefa and her son Adam due to the demands on living space caused by the frequent waves of new arrivals.  Erik does what he can to make life secure for his new family, but Adam is a mischievous boy and loves to roam the streets and alleys of the Ghetto.  One day, Adam doesn’t return home from his wanderings and because the Ghetto can be a dangerous place, his mother and Erik fear the worst.  The next morning, his body is found entangled in the barbed wire just outside the Ghetto walls, and perhaps worst of all, one of his legs has been removed.

The Warsaw Ghetto - street scene

The Ghetto has seen many deaths, often at the hands of the Nazi soldiers who enforce the enclosure, but this is different – a perverse and cruel murder.  Erik is devastated by the loss of the child, and comforts the grief-stricken Stefa as best he can, but a slow-burning anger enters his heart and he finds himself compelled to find out what happened to Adam.

More deaths of children occur, and Erik finds himself allying with his close friend Izzy to continue the investigation in places where there own lives are in danger.  This is a gripping read: each step on the journey to a solution is hard-won and Erik and Izzy find that the Ghetto is a place of drama and unfolding mysteries.

Richard Zimler’s books are steeped in Jewish history (as is shown by the glossary of Yiddish words which crop up in the conversations between the various characters).  Zimler’s knowledge of life in the Ghetto has enabled him to draw a moving and at times horrifying picture of life within the walls, where up to 400,000 people were confined within an area not much bigger than a square mile or so.

The whole book is steeped in a sense of imminent catastrophe, for Erik, being a ghost knows the end from the beginning – that his neighbours in the Ghetto are almost all doomed to exile and death before the war is over.  With such knowledge, one may wonder why it is so important to Erik to find Adam’s killer?  When all are to die, where is the significance of a single death?  Erik’s motivation is of course love, and a love-fueled quest for revenge.  Our philosophical perspective matters nothing when a child has been murdered, for justice has to be done.

In an interview Richard Zimler revealed that he submitted his first book in the series, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, to 24 American publishers only to have the manuscript rejected by each one.  Eventually he submitted to a Portuguese publisher who called him to the office and said, “What would like on the cover?”.  Since then it has been published in over twenty countries, including America which had first rejected it.  We can be grateful to the insight of the  Portuguese publisher who took a chance on the book for a rich series has resulted from it, each book of which stands alone, but the total building up to far more than the sum of its parts.

I wrote short reviews of three of Richard Zimler’s other books before I started this book blog. I have republished them here.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
The Search for Sana
The Seventh Gate


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10 comments to Review: The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

  • I wasn’t familiar with this author, Tom, but I’m intrigued by your description of the novel and your enthusiasm for his work in general. Ironically, if I didn’t trust in what you say here, I have a feeling I’d probably be suspicious of a work involving a kabbalistic element and historical fiction-so Zimler must be really good at what he does to earn your approval. Hope you have a nice weekend!

  • Tom

    Richard – thanks for your comments. Yes, I am enthusiastic about Zimler’s books – The Seventh Gate is one of my all time great books. The kabbalistic element is understated and is in the context of a main character who does not believe in God, so the book does not have a religious aspect.

  • Great review Tom … and I love the story about the Portuguese publisher. I love hearing about how authors get published, while recognising that these stories tell us, really, about how many writers don’t get published.

    BTW I have no idea what cover he chose for that first book, but I do like the cover of this one. It seems to perfectly match what you have described as its content.

  • I have never herad of this author before but he does sound interesting. Do you happen to know Gustav Meryink’s Golem? I would be curious to know if there is a resemblance. The themes are similar but the style is probably very different.

  • Tom

    Sue – thanks for visiting again. Zimler is a much published writer, popular in many European countries, but strangely he is better known in translation. I have yet to meet anyone who’s heard of him, but considering the prizes and awards he’s won, its all rather difficult to understand. As you see, I rate him highly!

  • Tom

    Caroline – I’ve never heard of The Golem, but i’ve just looked it up and it sounds interesting. I’ve added to my amazon wish list. Thanks for the tip

  • I’ll never save up enough money to get back to Europe if I order them all, Tom, so which one should I start with?

  • Tom

    Hi Lisa – sorry for delay in replying. To my mind, The Seventh Gate is the best. I just loved that book!

  • Just to mention that The Warsaw Anagrams is currently on sale in the Kindle format at Amazon.co.uk for the absurdly low price of 1.59 pounds. I don’t know how long the sale will last.

  • Tom

    Thanks for that!

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