In his extraordinary autobiographical novel Bread For The Departed, Bogdan Wojdowski tells the agonizing story of the Warsaw Ghetto seen through the eyes of David Fremde.
Like the hero of his novel, Wojdowski survived life in the Ghetto from November 1940 through the deportation of almost its entire population (350,000 men, women and children) to the death camp at Treblinka in the summer of 1942. In meticulous and painful detail, Wojdowski paints a horrifying picture of the intolerable conditions in which the Jewish population was forced to live, crammed into the tiny space allotted to them behind the Ghetto walls.
But, Wojdowski’s story is much more than the story of the Ghetto or of the adventures of a twelve-year-old boy living through the horror of Nazi occupation. Bread For The Departed is really the story of lost faith; it is the story of a universe that is flattened out into a meaningless, incomprehensible story of pain and suffering.
David was born into a multi-layered universe of mystery and beauty. In his pre-adolescent years, he inhabited a world of magical stories populated by heroes of faith who trusted in God and were rescued from harm by the benevolent hand of Divine Providence.
Half-way through the novel, in the face of the cruel fate inflicted upon God’s “Chosen People” by Nazi terror, David’s peaceful trust in a Benign Power concerned for his well-being, is in tatters. David sits at the kitchen table in his family’s Ghetto tenement listening to a conversation between his parents and Professor Baum.
It is important never to minimize the tremendous challenge that confronts any person who chooses faith in the face of the horrifying evidence of so much of history and so much of human experience.
To stare unflinchingly at the reality of so much of the human condition, and yet hold in our hearts a vision of transcendent beauty and truth, is no small feat. To behold the violence and inhumanity of so much human behaviour and yet hold a conviction in a truth that is greater than terror and a love that is stronger than death, is perhaps the most challenging human calling. To read the agonizing stories of betrayal and injustice that populate so much of literature, while holding to the possibility of another narrative, is a truly noble human endeavour. To stand on the edge of the abyss and peer over into the darkness, yet affirm the presence of Light, takes profound strength and true commitment.
Ironically, there is something so beautiful and moving in Wojdowski’s description of David’s response to the conversation between his parents and professor Baum, that the reader’s heart is touched at this very point of despair, by the possibility that it may indeed remain possible to affirm the ancient narrative of an enchanted universe.
Wojdowski describes a simple gesture David witnesses during the adult conversation. He then articulates David’s final loss of faith in the old stories and the ancient worldview, even though the misty trail of faith continues to leave a trace in David’s heart:
Professor Baum slid his hand over the table as if he were erasing a dirty and no longer needed chart that had been traced on it.
One motion, one glance – and the eternal world collapsed, but its fragments circled outside the window in distant space, whirled among the stars like astral admonitions, like moldy signs of the zodiac, like myths that had returned to their original locations.
Noah will not save the species, the Flood will happen not just once but many times, and the distant mammoth will bypass the Ark. Poor mammoth, it is going to freeze in the ice of Siberia!
The ladder on which Jacob climbs to the clouds leads nowhere, the ladder is missing a final rung, the dream has no end, and Jacob’s hands are growing weak.
Blind Moses, minus his stick, dies of thirst and the shattered tables turn to sand, the sand of the desert.
Jonah doesn’t reach Nineveh in time. The fish loses its way among the waters and dies, and its great body breaks apart on dry land.
Esther sobs eternally in the garden of the king and does not save her people.
The wine glass is empty and when Elijah the Prophet comes to our street he will gather scattered bones.
The Bible collapsed into the ruins; all of Grandfather’s teachings became barren. David’s ears burned, his eyes were glittering, feverish, and his thoughts caused him to break out in a sweat. In all that upheaval he yearned for the illusions he had long since abandoned.
A part of his being was sinking into nothingness and clung to his memories with its last bit of strength, crying for help, but he felt no faith, only a shapeless longing. So there is nothing anymore, nothing definite, nothing lasting? Professor Baum said no. And gave examples.
(Wojdowski, Bogdan trans. Madeline G. Levine. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1997, orig. pub. in Polish 1971, pp. 199, 200)
Tragically, it seems that it was impossible for Bogdan Wojdowski to hold the counter-narrative of faith, in the face of the horror he had known in the Warsaw Ghetto. Unable to live in the empty universe his fictional creation experienced, Wojdowski committed suicide at the age of 64 on 21 April 1994 in Warsaw, Poland.