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Reviews of We Must Not Think of Ourselves by Lauren Grodstein

We Must Not Think of Ourselves

by Lauren Grodstein

We Must Not Think of Ourselves by Lauren Grodstein X
We Must Not Think of Ourselves by Lauren Grodstein
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  • Published:
    Nov 2023, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

A heart-wrenching story of love and defiance set in the Warsaw Ghetto, based on the actual archives kept by those determined to have their stories survive World War II

A Read with Jenna Book Club Pick and named a Best Book of 2023 by Kirkus Reviews (Best Fiction Books of the Year & Best Historical Fiction of 2023)

On a November day in 1940, Adam Paskow becomes a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Jews of the city are cut off from their former lives and held captive by Nazi guards, and await an uncertain fate. Weeks later, he is approached by a mysterious figure with a surprising request: Will he join a secret group of archivists working to preserve the truth of what is happening inside these walls? Adam agrees and begins taking testimonies from his students, friends, and neighbors. He learns about their childhoods and their daydreams, their passions and their fears, their desperate strategies for safety and survival. The stories form a portrait of endurance in a world where no choices are good ones.

One of the people Adam interviews is his flatmate Sala Wiskoff, who is stoic, determined, and funny—and married with two children. Over the months of their confinement, in the presence of her family, Adam and Sala fall in love. As they desperately carve out intimacy, their relationship feels both impossible and vital, their connection keeping them alive. But when Adam discovers a possible escape from the Ghetto, he is faced with an unbearable choice: Whom can he save, and at what cost?

Inspired by the testimony-gathering project with the code name Oneg Shabbat, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Grodstein draws readers into the lives of people living on the edge. Told with immediacy and heart, We Must Not Think of Ourselves is a piercing story of love, determination, and sacrifice for the many fans of literary World War II fiction such as Kristin Harmel's The Book of Lost Names and Lauren Fox's Send for Me.


The next evening, Filip strutted into the apartment with two large bags of chicken feet that he had traded for somewhere on the outside. He had recently turned twelve and was starting to grow; perhaps his prosperity as a trader had provided him with the requisite calories for a proper growth spurt, or perhaps the human body would do what it was designed to do even in the most absurd of circumstances. Either way, he was a good ten centimeters taller than he'd been when we'd met, and his shoulders had started to broaden. His voice was changing too, becoming deeper. I noticed it especially when he practiced his English with me. In English, he sounded almost like a man.

"I'll trade you four feet for next week's lesson," I said. (The going price for English lessons was three zloty or, lately, whatever the children's families could spare; I had no idea what the going rate was for chicken feet, since chicken was not legal for purchase in the ghetto.)

"I risked my life for these,...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think Emanuel Ringelblum created the Oneg Shabbat project? How did the project's goals change as the novel progressed?
  2. Why do you think more Jews didn't try to leave Poland as conditions deteriorated? Why do you suppose they didn't try to escape from the ghetto?
  3. In what ways do you feel the children were at the heart of ghetto life? Why do you suppose that was so?
  4. What is Szifra's attitude toward her brothers? Why doesn't she abandon them? What do you think you would have done in her place?
  5. Although Adam never had children of his own, he takes on various paternal roles throughout the novel. What kind of father figure is he to the individual children in the story? What do you believe he's...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about We Must Not Think of Ourselves.
You can see the full discussion here.

Have you ever been in a situation where every one of your options is a compromise, that there is no way to do right by everyone?
Absolutely! My role as a wife, mother, neighbor, citizen all require compromise. Some more, some less. Finding a neutral ground that doesn't require a surrender of anyone's deep moral guidelines for life can be very challenging. ... - robinsb

Henryk calls Adam a realist, adding that "if the world were only made of realists the world would never change." Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
I try to be a realist, but also feel that I try to see the bright side of what is real! Optimism = hope to me, and without that hope, I think that even more Jews would have lost their lives. - beckys

How did you feel about Henryk Duda, Kasia's father? Did he love Adam, or did he just want to use him for his own ends?
I think that Henryk might have cared for Adam at one time, and knew that he made his daughter very happy, but as the war progressed and things got tough, I think he just looked at Adam as a financial opportunity and one that could help him achieve ... - beckys

If Kasia were alive, do you think she would have accompanied Adam to the ghetto? Would they have been able to escape before the war?
I think Adam would have done everything possible to save her from the ghetto, including leaving Poland. Failing that, I believe she would have accompanied him, especially since they believed it was short term and had no idea how long and how bad the ... - Elizabeth Marie

In what ways did this story broaden your understanding of life during the Holocaust?
I have read many books about the holocaust and it seems each one comes with an individualized story and circumstance. This one was interesting to me because of the personal histories of the people living in the ghetto and the people trying to ... - beckys

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BookBrowse Review


Much of what the narration conveys is rather mundane—a beleaguered population making the best of an increasingly intolerable situation—particularly in the novel's first half. Through interviews we learn how the housewives and children around him cope with such deprivation. We read about people's former lives, their desires and dreams, their loves, and their hopes for a better future. These characters leap off the page; each is unique and beautifully drawn, with their own perspective on their ordeal. These sections read like actual transcripts, with realistic digressions and segues. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes harrowing, the stories form a beautiful mosaic describing the lives of those trapped in the Ghetto...continued

Full Review Members Only (616 words)

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Historical Novels Review
[A] penetrating novel… Grodstein movingly re-creates the circumstances behind [Oneg Shabbat's] creation…a memorable standout.

Montecito Journal
Profound… This will move you to tears.

Grodstein expertly weaves the tale of this lonely storyteller, his students and the families he lives with into the true history of the Oneg Shabbat project. Gripping, emotional, and, against all odds, hopeful.

Kim Hubbard, New York Times Book Review
[A]ccomplished…This is a tender, heartbreaking novel that grapples with timeless questions. Is collaboration forgivable? Can sparks of human kindness, however tiny, fend off hopelessness in the face of evil?

Lilith Magazine
[A] crucial, compelling, and important new novel.

Washington Post
[A] gripping historical novel.

Associated Press
Lauren Grodstein's masterpiece… an extraordinary work of historical fiction.

Beyond The Bookends
This heart-wrenching tale explores love, defiance, and sacrifice in the face of unimaginable circumstances, making it a compelling addition to the literary World War II fiction genre.

[A] moving chronicle, a worthy tribute to those who fought to survive the unthinkable.

Emotionally charged and meticulously researched, We Must Not Think of Ourselves pays homage to the Oneg Shabbat's goal of honoring the Jewish people by bearing witness to the entirety of their experience. This is a compelling and compassionate tribute that will resonate deeply with readers.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[A] delicate, warm account of a brutal, cold time, grounded in humanity, small details, and unwavering clarity.

Shelf Awareness
[R]ealistic, heartrending… Thought-provoking, tender, and horrifying, this memorable novel of Jewish lives in the Warsaw Ghetto offers timeless lessons.

Library Journal
Grodstein brings to life a critical piece of history with her strong sense of place and complex characters... [The Oneg Shabbat archive] is represented beautifully in Grodstein's first historical novel, supported by her intensive research and the book's dynamic relationships that show the value of everyday intimacies. Recommended for readers who enjoy stories from all time periods about the extraordinary actions of ordinary people.

Publishers Weekly
Grodstein makes her persecuted characters achingly human... This will stay with readers.

Author Blurb Lauren Fox, New York Times bestselling author of Send for Me
In We Must Not Think of Ourselves, Lauren Grodstein writes with such a blazing commitment to the truth of the Warsaw Ghetto that sometimes I had to stop reading and catch my breath. But in the midst of the brutality, she clears a path for the parallel stories of love and decency. Make no mistake: this is a heartbreaking portrait of a dark moment. But this novel shimmers with light.

Author Blurb Laurie Frankel, New York Times bestselling author of One Two Three
We Must Not Think of Ourselves is one of those rare books—beautifully written, seamlessly constructed, quietly devastating—that manages to tell an old story in a new way with no pyrotechnics beyond perfect storytelling, including an ending that will stay with me always. It is far and away my favorite novel of the year, of many years, and I know I will be recommending it to readers forevermore.

Author Blurb Madeline Miller, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles
This book is a masterpiece: profound, gripping, urgent, and beautiful. In its clear-eyed and devastating portrait of the past, Grodstein invites us into the present; to bear witness to the lives that have come before us, while finding meaning and courage for our own.

Reader Reviews


Elevates the Genre: One of the Best Books of 2023
Author Lauren Grodstein believes that had her great-grandparents not left Warsaw twenty years before World War II, she likely would not have been born. She first learned about the Oneg Shabbat Archive in 2019 when she traveled to Poland with her ...   Read More
Catherine O’C

Raw and Realistic
I have read hundreds, if not thousands of novels set during World War II. The novel We Must Not Think of Ourselves is one in its own class. This novel takes place in a Polish ghetto over the course of almost 2 years. During that time the residents ...   Read More
cindy r

human evil
WE MUST NOT THINK OF OURSELVES (AlgonquinBooks) by Lauren Grodstein is a thought-provoking eyewitness account of WWII. It's based on diaries that can be found in the Oneg Shabbat Archives in Warsaw. I was not aware of this particular story and it ...   Read More

So much more than a chronicle of suffering.
In recording the history of what is happening in the ghetto, we see not only the daily cruelties, but also stories of love, kindness, sacrifice, and hope.

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Beyond the Book

Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oneg Shabbat Project

milk jugLauren Grodstein's novel We Must Not Think of Ourselves was inspired by the Oneg Shabbat Project, a World War II archive compiled and hidden by the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Established and run by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, the archive contained a wide variety of documents recording daily life in the Ghetto.

Ringelblum was born in Buczacz, Poland (now part of Ukraine) in 1900, and after graduating from Warsaw University he taught high school history. He was known as an expert on the history of Poland's Jewish community from the late Middle Ages onward and was a frequent contributor of scholarly articles on the subject.

He was also politically and socially active. As a young man he joined Po'alei Zion Left, a Marxist-Zionist ...

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