The Wall by John Hersey Summary

Overview (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

John Hersey’s intent in The Wall is to relate in fictional form the martyrdom of the Jews who lived in Warsaw during World War II, and the text of the novel is purported to consist of selections from a very extensive diary originally written in Yiddish that was kept by a historian named Noach Levinson. Even though the diary and the historian are equally fictive, the novel reads very much like an authentic historical chronicle.

As published under the title of The Wall, the diary begins with the German occupation of the Polish capital in the fall of 1939 and concludes with the razing of the entire ghetto by Schutzstaffel (SS) troops as part of the suppression of the revolt that occurred there in the spring of 1943. So assiduous was Levinson in his role of chronicler that the almost daily entries recorded over this period of three and one half years reached a total of more than four million words. This diary, as well as a vast quantity of other documents assembled by Levinson, allegedly was buried within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto for safety’s sake. Even though Levinson is supposed to have died of pneumonia nearly a year after the destruction of the ghetto while hiding out in the “Aryan” sector of Warsaw, he reportedly left detailed directions pertaining to the location of the archive with several trusted individuals who duly recovered it at the war’s end.

The fictive archivist Levinson, it should be noted, had a historical counterpart in the person of Emanuel Ringelblum. As founder of the ghetto archives, this heroic scholar struggled to find and preserve Jewish documents for posterity. While his own writings are far less extensive than those attributed to Levinson by Hersey, the content of Ringelblum’s wartime journal, titled Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (1974), closely parallels the historical events fictionalized in The Wall. At the time of the German conquest of Poland, the area of Warsaw that was to become the site of the ghetto was inhabited by 240,000 Jews and 80,000 Gentiles. In the fall of 1940, the Nazis ordered the Gentiles to leave the area; at the same time, some 140,000 Jews from other sectors of Warsaw were compelled to move in. The ghetto was then sealed off by an eight-foot wall, and the death penalty was decreed for any Jew who ventured outside as well as for any Gentile who dared to harbor or assist a person of Jewish ancestry. The number of Jews residing within the ghetto eventually grew to 430,000 as an influx of deportees from different regions of Poland and from other European countries more than replaced those who died from hunger and disease.

Although the mass extermination of European Jewry actually got under way shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, it was not until approximately a year later that the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began in earnest. The ghetto’s inhabitants were told that they were to be resettled in the East, but the journey turned out to be a short one: a trip of some fifty miles to the gas chambers set up in the death camp of Treblinka. As soon as the true nature of the transfer action became known, the disparate political and religious factions within the ghetto banded together and agreed to the formation of a military unit to be known as the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB). The climax of the unit’s armed resistance came when the ZOB opened fire on the Germans and their Ukrainian and Lithuanian auxiliaries as they entered the ghetto on the morning of April 19, 1943. By that time, the total number of inhabitants had dwindled to 60,000, but the poorly armed members of the ZOB still managed to thwart the enemy for nearly a month. There was never any hope of victory, except for the spiritual triumph that comes from dying with honor. The last part of The Wall itself is devoted to the details of the planning and execution of this act of insurrection and constitutes an eloquent tribute to its heroic grandeur.

In the prologue to The Wall, the anonymous editor of Levinson’s diary states that the version he has prepared for current publication consists of only one-twentieth of the more than four million words to be found in the original notebooks. In order to achieve such a drastic reduction in length, he decided to concentrate on those entries that pertain to the fortunes of a group of individuals belonging to three families, whose respective surnames are Berson, Apt, and Mazur. These families are eventually compelled to live together in a single apartment, owing to the lack of housing within the ghetto. They also take in three other persons as roomers—a rabbi, a former social worker, and Levinson himself. It is ironic that Levinson experiences the joys of family life for the first time as an adult by virtue of this arrangement, and he develops genuine affection for all members of this extended family. For this privilege, Levinson comes close to feeling gratitude toward the Nazis, who have made it all possible.

Because of this newly acquired vantage point, Levinson becomes privy to much intimate information concerning other members of the...

(The entire section is 2105 words.)