Book Review: The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford

The Good Doctor of WarsawAbout the Book

‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’

Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.  As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day…  Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.

This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.

Format: ebook, paperback (368 pp.)      Publisher: Corvus
Published in UK : 1st February 2018     Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

I’ll be honest and say that when I read Elisabeth Gifford’s previous book, Secrets of the Sea House, I found the story line set in the past much more compelling than that set in the present.  So, I was delighted to learn about this book set entirely in the period of the Second World War.  The subject matter, well, that’s very far from delightful but the author delivers a powerful, compelling account of the fate of those who struggled for survival in the Warsaw ghetto.  Sadly, most of them failed in that struggle.  Of the half a million people who lived in the Warsaw ghetto, less than one percent survived to tell their story.

With the benefit of hindsight, one reads about the unfolding events in the ghetto with a mounting sense of horror.    I’ll give you an example that sums this up and which sent shivers down my spine.  News comes that some of the men imprisoned by the Nazis are to be released to carry out construction work at a site close to Warsaw. ‘It’s a new work camp called Treblinka.’

The inhabitants of the ghetto greet each new atrocity with shock; they simply cannot believe that human beings could do such things to other human beings (and who can blame them).  ‘So this is the ghetto, a square mile of hell containing half a million people slowly dying of hunger.’ Gradually the Jewish community begin to realise the objective of the Nazis is their total elimination and their focus switches to trying to ensure the survival of their children at the very least, those who represent their future.   ‘Our highest and holiest duty is to ensure that our children survive these tragic times.’

Each day becomes a daily struggle to find food with only goods smuggled in from outside the ghetto keeping people alive – and barely, at that.  Diseases, such as typhus, are rife in such squalid conditions.   Grotesquely, the presence of disease is welcomed by the Nazi regime because it will do the work of eliminating the Jews more quickly than starvation and deter any contact from the areas of Warsaw outside the ghetto.  It also feeds into their appalling belief in the Jewish people as tainted.

However, behind the harrowing depiction of the grotesque treatment meted out to the Jewish community of Warsaw, there is the wonderful love story of Misha and Sophia. ‘If he has Sophia, then he has everything.’  Despite personal tragedies and enforced separation lasting years, they never give up their belief that they will one day build a home together.

The Good Doctor of Warsaw is also a story of courage and dedication.  Those qualities are personified in Dr Janusz Korczak.  “All I can tell you is that a beautiful life is always a difficult life.”  Just when you think nothing can be worse than what you’ve already read, the children of the ghetto are rounded up and taken to the railway station.  ‘The march of the children pulls a dark cloud across the sky behind it.  Finally, the ghetto understands what the Germans intend.  If they can take the children, they will take everybody.’  Dr Korczak remains committed to the welfare of the children under his care to the very end, passing up opportunities to escape himself.  As he says, “You do not leave a child alone to face the dark.”

At times, the events in the book are almost unbearably distressing to read but then the book should be uncomfortable reading because it bears witness to one of the greatest atrocities of the Second World War.  I praise the author for shining a light on this story of, yes, cruelty and barbarism, but also of courage, resilience and hope.   As well as the history of a persecuted community, it’s also the story of real individuals.  The author’s website has fascinating photographs of Misha, Sophia, Dr Korczak and the children.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Atlantic Books/Corvus, in return for an honest review.

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Try something similar…When It’s Over by Barbara Ridley (click here to read my review)


Elisabeth GiffordAbout the Author

Elisabeth Gifford studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She worked as a dyslexia specialist for several years while raising a family. After studying for a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway College she was asked to write The House of Hope, a biography of Dr Joyce Hill who opened a rescue centre for abandoned babies in China, published by Monarch Press. She was taken on by literary agent Jenny Hewson and three historical novels followed, published by Corvus.  Secrets of the Sea House is set in the Hebrides and is a dark mystery that explores at the very real events behind the frequent mermaid sightings reported in Scotland a century ago. Return to Fourwinds is a sweeping family saga set between England and Spain between the wars. The Good Doctor of Warsaw is the shocking and ultimately inspiring true story of some of the rare survivors of the Warsaw ghetto during WW2, and features the inspiring story of Dr Janusz Korczak who defied the Nazi brutality by creating an oasis of kindness and happiness for children. A sort of Polish-Jewish Dr Barnardo, Dr Korczak helped draft the first international children’s bill of rights and his teaching on how to raise children with love and respect is still widely followed today, and where it is, it makes children’s lives happier.

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