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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.