In the ghetto


Until he finished writing Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto: An Epitaph for the Unremembered, Peter Dembowski thought about his subject every day: "If I didn't think about it, I had nightmares about it."

But when Dembowski, a distinguished-service professor emeritus in Romance languages & literatures, finished writing his 2005 book, he told the audience at this Wednesday's Divinity School community lunch, "the nightmares stopped."

A Warsaw native who participated in the city's uprising and was imprisoned by the Germans at Pawiak and Stalag XB Sandbostel, Dembowski wanted to tell the story of the 5,000 Christians of Jewish origin who lived in the Warsaw ghetto (whether recent converts or descendants of converts in generations past, they were Jewish under Nazi law). In describing what life was like for the Jewish Christians and how they were viewed by the ghetto's Jewish occupants, Dembowski drew upon archival materials—and his memories.

“I was there, I remember,” the professor said of his own interactions with the ghetto, but the question of memory “is very complicated. What you remember is the atmosphere, the fear. The emotions, which appear in the nightmares, are true."


Photo: "You didn't realize you were in the ghetto at first," said Peter Dembowski of life in the Warsaw ghetto. The Germans "did everything to instill in people the feeling of non-danger," of ordinary life.

February 9, 2007