Thursday, March 11, 2021

Book Review: The Good Doctor of Warsaw

By Jami Denison

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Attributed to Edmund Burke, this quote has come up a lot over the past four years. Reading Elisabeth Gifford’s The Good Doctor of Warsaw, I was reminded of it again. This fictionalized account of a real person not only serves as a reminder of what happens when good men do nothing, but that great men are the ones who act in the face of evil.

The Good Doctor is Janusz Korczak, a Jewish pediatrician who left his medical practice behind to care for orphans in his country of Poland. He was one of the first people to see children as unique individuals and treat them as such, writing books and teaching seminars about his methods. He was living in Warsaw, Poland, when Hitler declared war. The city’s Jewish population was forced into a ghetto, including Korczak’s orphanage.

Author Gifford was a young teacher and mother when she first encountered Korczak’s teachings and incredible personal story. Moved to learn as much as she could about him, his children, and his co-workers, Gifford took ten years of research and writing before tackling the book that became The Good Doctor of Warsaw (which was first published in 2018 by an independent British publisher before being picked up by a Simon & Schuster imprint). In it, Gifford not only creates a tender portrait of a man who has dedicated himself to serving his city’s most vulnerable children during the century’s most unimaginable horror, but also tells the story of two of his followers, Misha and Sophia. The stories of several of the orphans are also told. 

Most of the story takes place in the Warsaw ghetto, an area of less than 1.5 square miles that held nearly half a million Jews at its peak. With nothing to eat, and disease sweeping the area, young men like Misha turned to bribery and smuggling to help their families. As the walls literally and figuratively close in on them, the Jewish people of Poland do all they can to survive.

The Good Doctor of Warsaw is a heavily researched fictionalized version of the lives of real people. Although Gifford uses multiple (third person) points of view and sometimes lapses into “head hopping,” the writing is rich and taut. She ends the book with a detailed author’s note that describes her research and lets readers know what really happened to the people featured in the book. 

While many have drawn comparisons between today’s political atmosphere and the conflicts that bore the Third Reich,  I was most struck by the misplaced optimism of many of the ghettos inhabitants. Blaming their fate on Hitler and his Nazi party, they are convinced that once the good people of Germany learn what he is really up to, he will be removed and they will be saved. The people of Germany, they told themselves, couldn’t possibly know the truth; couldn’t possibly let this happen. But history shows that they did, and they did. 

History always has the last word. 

Thanks to Pegasus Books for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Elisabeth Gifford:

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