John Hersey’s lasting testament

  • Themes: Great Books, History

One of the first and most consequential pieces of literature on the Holocaust, John Hersey’s The Wall combines exhaustive research with empathetic storytelling to capture both the mounting oppression and everyday mundanity of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Photograph of a wall encircling the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.
Photograph of a wall encircling the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Within a year of the Second World War’s end, the Soviet occupation had buried the past like snowfall. Postwar Europe was consumed with aspirations for the future; of physical and political renovation, not reckoning. In Poland, communist authority was calcifying as the dregs of resistance were extinguished.

But the city of Warsaw was a palimpsest, and, in September 1946, a group of excavators struggled through the decimated residential block of Nowolipki 68. They dug tunnels through the debris, built ventilation shafts and probed the brick and stone with long metal poles.

The researchers were hoping to disinter a small fragment of the world beneath. Their site was in the mangled residue and rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, which had once held over 400,000 Jews. Nowolipki 68 had been a Yiddish school until the demolition of the Ghetto in May 1943. After days of digging, ten metal boxes and milk cans were brought to the air and received with elation by the excavators.

Within the containers were some of the records of the Oyneg Shabes: a group, led by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum, that chronicled life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto. The researchers opened the boxes to retrieve the worn remnants of lists, notes and diaries, some marinated in sewage water. One box contained the last wills and testaments of the archivists. ‘May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened,’ wrote David Graber, a 19-year-old contributor to the archive. ‘We may now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us.’

The Ringelblum Archive lay behind one of the first and most consequential pieces of literature on the Holocaust: John Hersey’s 1950 book, The Wall. Comparatively less well known nowadays than other works of fiction on the subject, at the time it was the first prominent English-language novel to centre on the persecution of the Jews and their resistance to the Nazis. Through deep research and empathetic storytelling, Hersey captured life and death, the quotidian and the abstruse, in the Warsaw Ghetto from its establishment in November 1939 to the doomed uprising of May 1943.

The son of Protestant missionaries to China, John Hersey is best known for his 1946 article ‘Hiroshima,’ published in the New Yorker, and commonly cited as one of the greatest pieces of journalism in the twentieth century for its in-depth and visceral exposure of the destruction and aftermath of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city. The success of ‘Hiroshima,’ however, belied Hersey’s primary inclination towards writing novels, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1944 book A Bell for Adano.

Hersey drew on his journalistic experiences for his fiction, with The Wall the literary manifestation of his exposure to the Holocaust. Based in Moscow towards the end of the war, he had followed the wake of the Soviet advance westwards, witnessing the remains of Nazi atrocities, including a concentration camp in Estonia in which the mass pyres of bodies still burned. By the time he wrote The Wall, Hersey had experienced, in Europe and Japan, the stark universality in which modernity’s destruction and extermination could manifest.

‘I wrote most of a first draft of The Wall from the universal point of view, that of an all-knowing author,’ Hersey recalled, ‘and then realised that since I hadn’t experienced any of the life in the Warsaw ghetto, the novel needed an authority I couldn’t bring to it.’ He adjusted his framing to an epistolary form, handing the narrative to the fictional Noach Levinson who assumed Emmanuel Ringelblum’s role as archivist. Through this approach, The Wall emphasises the often-mundane life in the Ghetto through the nearly 1,300 days of its narrative, in which escalating oppression is matched with aspirations for basic enjoyments and luxuries.

‘But what is this being in a ghetto?’ Levinson wonders, ‘Is it simply being within the wall?’ The eponymous partition ensconces the experiences of the Jews from the war and the ambitions and plans of the Nazis. Routine is resilient and the resistance movement emerges through the oppression of those ordinary facets of daily life as the truth behind the euphemism of ‘re-settlement in the East’ becomes clear. The Wall’s form celebrates the sanctity of information, but that is shadowed by the awareness of its scarcity and the power of the occupiers to stifle knowledge.

As if it was transposed from the ghetto to 1950s America, the significance of The Wall lay in its edifying bridging between two distinct epochs and communities. The lens into Eastern European Jewish society was developed from Hersey’s extensive research into their religious and cultural customs. Notes from the editor intrude at points to outline the religious context of certain practices.

Of particular note is the long description of the ritual slaughter of a horse to feed the inhabitants of the ghetto. The rabbi offers special dispensation to eat the non-kosher animal and, over five pages, Hersey details the delicate preparation of the horse, as the Jews adjust to their imprisonment but still hold onto religious conviction. The culminating feast offers great joy to the diners but seeps into sorrow as they remember the extent of the circumstances. Aspirations for resistance and redemption course through the final chapters, but the book is ultimately a panegyric delivered by the futility of those hopes and efforts.

Such ardent realism restrains the literary imagination of the novel, focusing on the tangible policies, actions and consequences of the Nazis and Jews in Warsaw. Noach Levinson is a conduit for other’s stories and observations, assuming an omniscient role as chronicler but interfering little in the narrative. Hersey states in the first few pages – in his note as the fictional editor of the archive – that Levinson died of pneumonia after the dissolution of the ghetto, further ensuring that the reader considers the novel as a heuristic artefact, unearthed from the ground and speaking from a separate historical era.

The Wall was an immediate bestseller and Hersey won the National Jewish Book Award. It was considered so realistic by some readers that they refused to believe the book was a novel. The Wall was an early landmark in the field of Holocaust literature. The Diary of Anne Frank would only be translated in English in 1952, and Elie Wiesel’s Night would not be published until 1956. The Wall, therefore, resides as a formative expression of the magnitude of the Holocaust for American society. ‘We are still close enough to the events he describes, and civilisation is still precarious enough as a result of those and similar events,’ wrote one contemporary review, ‘for us to be able to appreciate this book… as a splendid and moving testament of one man’s understanding and humanity’.

A second cache of the Ringelblum archive was uncovered in 1950, just before The Wall’s publication. But somewhere, buried within Warsaw, rests a final collection, said to tell the story of the preparation for the armed uprising in the ghetto. Despite repeated attempts, it has never been found. It is lost to the foundations of the city.


Angus Reilly