28 Days: A Nov­el of Resis­tance in the War­saw Ghetto

David Safi­er, Helen Mac­Cor­mac (trans.)

  • Review
By – February 1, 2021

When 28 Days begins, six­teen-year-old Jew­ish Mira is bold­ly imper­son­at­ing a Chris­t­ian Pole as she search­es for food in the War­saw mar­ket. An expe­ri­enced smug­gler, Mira is com­mit­ted to ille­gal­ly pro­vid­ing the res­i­dents of the ghet­to with enough food to stay alive as con­di­tions dete­ri­o­rate. Far from noble and moti­vat­ed by the need to keep her fam­i­ly alive, Mira gives lit­tle thought to the eth­i­cal dimen­sions of her actions. As the nov­el pro­gress­es, the con­stant demands on her to make prag­mat­ic deci­sions also forces Mira to con­front exis­ten­tial choic­es and to deter­mine whether she and the oth­er ghet­to res­i­dents will go to their deaths like sheep to the slaugh­ter. David Safier’s por­trait of Warsaw’s Jews on the brink of anni­hi­la­tion is an unstint­ing exam­i­na­tion of both Jew­ish his­to­ry and of indi­vid­ual lives unfold­ing in the most extreme circumstances.

Res­i­dents of the War­saw Ghet­to in 1943 expe­ri­enced tor­ture at every lev­el. Safi­er reveals, through Mira’s con­scious­ness, the impos­si­ble cru­el­ties inflict­ed every day. Insuf­fi­cient sub­servience to the Nazi occu­piers is met with revenge, but Jew­ish self-abase­ment also invites retal­i­a­tion. The Poles out­side the ghet­to, who should be allies in their fight against the Ger­mans, are as anti­se­mit­ic as their occu­piers. Mira finds some respite in her rela­tion­ship with Daniel, a young man who helps Janusz Kor­czak with his orphan­age of doomed Jew­ish chil­dren. (Kor­czak is one of sev­er­al char­ac­ters drawn from actu­al his­tor­i­cal fig­ures.) Yet Daniel’s kind­ness and pas­siv­i­ty frus­trate her. Intent on pro­tect­ing her­self and her fam­i­ly, she remarks iron­i­cal­ly on the dis­ad­van­tages of going out with a decent boy.” Her younger sis­ter, Han­nah, seems unruly but is also imag­i­na­tive. Her elab­o­rate­ly invent­ed sto­ries, with super­nat­ur­al and fairy tale ele­ments, become a key part of the novel’s struc­ture as Mira comes to rely on these fables as an alter­na­tive emo­tion­al real­i­ty. The dis­tant icons of Amer­i­can cul­ture, includ­ing Char­lie Chaplin’s poignant film, City Lights, also form inspir­ing scenery for her inter­nal life.

Jew­ish hero­ism is at the core of 28 Days, but so is self­ish­ness, betray­al, and cow­ardice. Mira’s own broth­er is a mem­ber of the Jew­ish police, a unit orga­nized by the Ger­mans both to enforce Nazi law and to fur­ther frag­ment the besieged com­mu­ni­ty. Safier’s scenes of vio­lence and hunger empha­size the degra­da­tion of ghet­to life. Yet even­tu­al­ly Mira learns that there is anoth­er pos­si­ble response, an armed resis­tance move­ment whose mem­bers see them­selves like the mar­tyrs of Masa­da who took their own lives rather than sur­ren­der to the Romans in ancient Judea. Safier’s sub­tle descrip­tion of the change in Mira’s con­scious­ness allows the read­er to see her as a skep­ti­cal young woman open to ques­tion­ing assump­tions more than as a hero. Her grow­ing attach­ment to Amos, one of the Resis­tance lead­ers, adds a love sto­ry which is famil­iar, but inten­si­fied by the extreme pres­sures of the situation.

Trapped in the sew­ers with their fel­low Jews, where they hope to find an exit from the ghet­to, Mira and Amos argue about the pur­pose of their prob­a­bly doomed actions. Amos asserts that future gen­er­a­tions of Jews will remem­ber them like the heroes of Masa­da, while Mira, true to her spir­it, sug­gests that there may not be any future for the Jew­ish peo­ple. Amos’s con­vic­tion when he states, There will be,” emerges from this com­plex and mov­ing account of imper­fect human beings who choose to oppose evil.

28 Days: A Nov­el of Resis­tance in the War­saw Ghet­to is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes an after­word by the author, includ­ing his­tor­i­cal back­ground as well as sug­ges­tions for think­ing about the moral ques­tions posed by the novel.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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