English professor Lauren Grodstein’s work of historical fiction spotlights a little-known World War II archive
A trip to Warsaw inspired Rutgers University in Camden English Professor Lauren Grodstein’s fifth novel, We Must Not Think of Ourselves, which was published November 28 by Algonquin Books and is racking up national accolades.
While touring Poland with her family, Grodstein learned of the Oneg Shabbat archive, a covert collection that preserves Jewish history by documenting what life was like in the Warsaw Ghetto during the German occupation. “During that trip, I came across this unbelievable trove of documents, newspapers, and diary entries,” she said. “I just thought, ‘There are so many novels here, so maybe I'll try to write one.’”
Grodstein’s main character, an archivist and schoolteacher named Adam, records testimonies, capturing both the quotidian moments and nightmarish realities of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. In her research, Grodstein was surprised to learn how much the ghetto system relied on children to smuggle food. “The Nazis only allowed about 250 calories a day per resident, which obviously isn't enough to live,” she said. “So, from the very beginning, children smuggled food through tunnels underneath the ghetto walls.”
Toward the middle of the book, the line “We must not think of ourselves” appears, which eventually became the book’s title. Grodstein said this phrase is a call to Shiva, a tradition observed in the week after a Jewish person dies, in which mourners are asked to turn mirrors around and sit on uncomfortable chairs in order to keep their attention on the deceased.
“The title is a call to Shiva for all the people who never had anyone to sit Shiva for them,” Grodstein said.
The novel has already surfaced on several year-end lists but hit an apex with its selection to The Today Show’s popular Read with Jenna [Bush Hager] Book Club. As the pick for December 2023, Grodstein’s novel joins the works of such celebrated authors as Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett, and Judy Blume among the club’s selections.
Grodstein was told her book would be the year’s last Read with Jenna pick back in February but had to keep the news under wraps for nearly a year. After the announcement, the author met with Today Show host Bush Hager to tape a segment about the novel.
“It was really magical,” Grodstein said of the experience. “I know how lucky I am. It's very hard for literary fiction to penetrate, to get out in the world. And to have someone to hold your book up in front of the country is just amazing.”
While promoting her book, Grodstein has continued to serve as director of the MFA program in writing at Rutgers–Camden, where she has taught for 18 years. This double duty should serve her students well. “It’s hard to separate my writing life from my teaching life because they inform each other so much,” she said. “All the experiences I've had, doing this now for more than half my life, I bring to the classroom with me.”
Grodstein will read from her work on campus at a Writers in Camden event on March 28, 2024. She hopes to inspire members of the Rutgers–Camden community, whether they simply attend the reading or enroll in one of her classes, to make the most of their creative ambitions.
“I want my experiences to be useful to students,” Grodstein said. “I try to listen to my students and let them guide me toward what they want out of their work. And I do my best to help them get there.”