Set in the ghettos of wartime Warsaw, this is a sweeping, poignant, and heartbreaking novel inspired by the true story of one doctor who was determined to protect two hundred Jewish orphans from extermination.
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 Janusz 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.
Waiting by the trains in the rail yard, the faces of the Jewish police turn to see Korczak and the children walking towards them.
Aronek and the boys look up with curiosity at the black engine encrusted with soot, massive wheels higher than a child’s head. Behind it stretches a line of old wooden cattle trucks painted oxblood red. The doors gape open and narrow wooden ramps
lead up from the dirt sidings.
Stefa goes in the first car, standing by the open door as children in ribbons and smocks climb the ramp, each holding a doll or a book or a toy. For once the Jewish police are not beating people with truncheons and shouting at them to hurry. They watch pale and open-mouthed, sometimes helping a child up the ramp.
When Stefa’s car is filled, she looks out at Korczak with a long, sad glance. Then the German guard slams the wooden door across and solders the bolt shut.
Korczak walks up into the next truck with the children. An acrid smell of lime and chlorine assaults the back of his throat. No soil bucket. There is one small window, high up, criss-crossedwith barbed wire.
When the rest of the children are in, the wooden door is slammed shut.
The train fills with truck after truck of children from the ghetto’s homes and schools. The guard writes the number inside each truck on the door. When this train and the next and the next are filled, each pulls away.
A total of some four thousand children leave the ghetto that day. In the acrid and hot train, it’s hard to breathe. Korczakbegins to tell a story to calm the children, knowing that if he is calm, they will be calm. The children, some of them crying, quieten and listen as the train clacks over the Vistula River. Passing behind the barracks where Misha and the boys are working.
There’s no room to sit down, although the police have not crammed the children’s trucks as full as they usually do, perhaps. Korczak’s aware that they must have reached Malkiniastation now, deep in the woods. He used to pass through here as a student with children on their way to summer camp. The train stops, no air coming in from the tiny window, the children drooping and half asleep in the heat. The chlorine air toxic. A military train thunders past, shaking the carriage. Shortly afterwards, the cattle trucks pull taut and they carry on again. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Korczak is aware that they are taking a track to the right, a spur that he doesn’t remember existing.
The train clacks on and passes a sign, a village called Treblinka, a few tar-roofed huts with impoverished potato farmers who sent their womenfolk away to stay with relatives as soon as the Ukrainian soldiers arrived.
The villagers can’t see what is inside the heavily screened camp within the forest, but they can smell a strange stench of rot and burning.
The train passes along a track where the trees are so close they brush the narrow window slat. After a while, the pine fronds disappear, the train stops and the doors open to a cacophony of shouting in German and Polish.
There are no work huts at Treblinka. It’s a tiny place among the pine trees, sweet with a smell that makes the hairs rise on the scalp.
Thousands come here each day. None of them leave. Overheated and thirsty, the passengers who are still alive after the journey disembark. A narrow passage between barbed-wire fences leads to shower chambers where carbon monoxide is pumped out through the nozzles.
Within two hours, everyone who disembarks at Treblinka is dead.
But in the Warsaw ghetto, no one knows this. No one has yet escaped to return and tell the people what Treblinka means.
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