Title: The Several Lives of Alex Wargon
Author: Alex Wargon
Publisher: Self Published
Place of publication: Sydney
Year of Publication: 1998
Location of Book: Rare Books Collection, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Poland: Warsaw, Dobrenice, Israel: Haifa, Italy: La Spezia
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative
Alex Wargon’s autobiography tells the story of his whole life, from childhood in Warsaw, until old age in Sydney. 160 pages in length, the book contains photos and maps interspersed throughout the narrative. Pages 1-24 of the book describe Wargon’s family history and life in pre-war Warsaw. Pages 25-68 relate the outbreak of war in September 1939, and life in Warsaw until Wargon’s escape from the ghetto during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. On pages 68-83, Wargon tells about his life disguised as a Pole, first on the ‘Aryan’ side of Warsaw and later in the town of Dobrenice. Pages 84-117 describe liberation, Wargon’s immigration to Palestine and his participation in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Finally, pages 118-160 tell the story of the ‘normal’ years of Wargon’s life, first in Israel, and later in Australia. The Several Lives of Alex Wargon was written in 1998 at the request of Wargon’s family members, for his children and grandchildren. Though written late in life, Wargon makes use of a diary that he had written in code during 1944 and 1945, translated into Polish after the war and into English a few years before writing his memoir.
Wargon was born into a prosperous, non-religious, Polish-speaking Jewish family. He describes a pleasant, though sickness-plagued upbringing; he missed some years of school due to illness at a young age. Wargon’s parents were Zionists, as was he. His mother travelled to Palestine in 1936 to purchase property there. Despite being a Zionist and ‘feeling Jewish’, however, Wargon states that culturally he identified primarily as a Pole. Before the war, anti-Semitism, sometimes violent, did exist in Poland, and the situation politically – both for Jews and, according to Wargon, in general, worsened. He states of the years immediately preceding the war: “Politically the government stood just to the right of Genghis Kahn as it kept moving further and further away from any semblance or pretension of democracy.”
When war comes suddenly to Warsaw in September 1939, Wargon’s family’s apartment is temporarily requisitioned by the Polish Army for military purposes, thus giving the Wargons their first taste of homelessness. When Poland surrenders, the Wargons move back to their home, but conditions for Jews in Warsaw worsen rapidly, with the introduction of increasing restrictions on Jews as well as violent attacks against them. By November 1941, the Warsaw Ghetto has been sealed off from the rest of the city. Wargon describes the horrific conditions in the ghetto, culminating in the mass deportations to the death camps which began in July 1942. Wargon and his family manage to obtain false work papers, thus allowing them to remain in the ghetto after the deportations. In January 1943 they once again escape deportation, and go into hiding in a bunker in the ghetto. When the attempted final deportation from the ghetto is met with violent resistance in April 1943, the Germans systematically destroy the ghetto, setting fire to buildings one at a time. Life in the bunker becomes impossible, and Wargon’s father organises for the young Wargon to escape from the ghetto through a sewer.
Wargon obtains fake papers and disguises himself as a Pole, moving for months from place to place on the ‘Aryan’ side of Warsaw in order to avoid capture. In August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising begins. Soon, the Germans begin ‘exiling’ Polish residents of Warsaw, Wargon among them. He is sent to the small town of Dobrenice, where he is put to work on a small farm. Though living in poverty, Wargon manages to stay safe in ‘exile’. On January 17, 1945, liberation comes to Dobrenice almost unnoticed. One day the Germans are there, the next they are gone, replaced by Russians; Wargon describes liberation as an anti-climax.
After the war, Wargon made travelled to Palestine via Italy, where his boat was involved in the famous ‘La Spezia Affair’. Reported to the British and denied entry to Palestine, the Jewish refugees on Wargon’s boat participated in a high profile hunger strike. They received much public support and eventually were permitted to enter Palestine. There, Wargon commenced studying engineering at the Technion. His studies were interrupted by Israel’s War of Independence, in which he participated as a member of the Haganah and then as a member of Israel’s fledgling army. After the war he continued studying and began to build a ‘normal’ life, first in Israel, and later in Australia after immigrating in 1958.
Wargon is eloquent and descriptive, though occasionally it can be noticed that he is not writing in his first language. His tone is personal; he is writing primarily for family members and this comes across in some references that he makes, such as his reference to the “father of Melbourne cousin Oscar”. Wargon puts much effort into contextualising his own experiences; at points his book reads like a history book, as he summarises the events that were taking place in the wider world. At the same time, he is very candid about the things that he does not remember; often he makes use of his war-time diary for events that he no longer recalls or people he no longer remembers. Alex Wargon’s story is one of tragedy and suffering, as well as resurrection and redemption. Wargon, “a 16-year-old child-adult, convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, without right of appeal” nevertheless participated in the rebuilding of a Jewish national home and of a life for himself and his family.