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Book Review: The Warsaw Orphan

Book Review: The Warsaw Orphan

Book Review: The Warsaw Orphan

24 August 2021

The Warsaw Orphan gives emotional and spiritual context to historical events, inviting the reader to experience the tragedies of Poland during World War Two in a new way.

Reviewed by Jessica Morris

I grew up learning about World War Two and the Holocaust, but in The Warsaw Orphan, Australian author Kelly Rimmer showed me a far less distanced version of recent history.

This fictional story tells us about a young man named Roman Gorka, who lives in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto in the spring of 1942. He and his family live in poverty under German occupation, as the government strips them of food, aid and resources.

On the opposite side of the ghetto’s wall is Elzbieta Rabinek, a Polish teen who must blend into an increasingly Aryan society at any cost after she was adopted out with a new identity as a child. Their paths cross when Elzbieta joins a covert operation to save children from the ghetto before they die or are shipped off to concentration camps.

Over the arc of this story, which spans years, we see two children not only lose their innocence but learn to fight for what is right. The character of Elzbieta is based on Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker and nurse who helped save 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. And her strong, steady nature dramatically contrasts with the combative and angry character of Roman, who has spent his entire life on a mission to destroy the enemy before they destroy him.

This narrative is beautifully complex and exquisitely researched by Rimmer. Sure, this is fiction, but the believability of these characters, their trauma, and the detailed events of the time educated me in humanity's historical and spiritual resilience during the Holocaust.

The fact Jewish people were forced into a ghetto before they entered camps was entirely new for me, as was what I learnt about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, conducted by 700 Jewish fighters in April 1944 after the authorities arrived to deport the last remaining inhabitants in the ghetto to concentration camps. The details about how they lived and the poverty enforced on these people were eerily familiar to me as I considered what this looks like today.

This book ends with a sense of hope, but not a watered-down version that pushes history to the back of the library. This is a tenacious, resilient, pain-filled hope, embodied by two characters who must choose over and over again to overcome war violence, trauma, inconceivable pain and fear.

Be aware that The Warsaw Orphan is filled with graphic and realistic portrayals of war, death, pain and sexual assault. But for those able to stomach historical fiction, this is a vital retelling of a period of history we should never repeat.

The Warsaw Orphan is available at major bookstores.

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