September 1, 2005
Spectator - Hard Truths of ‘Hamburg’
Polish journalist Hanna Krall's "The Woman From Hamburg: And Other True Stories" (Other Press, $19) is based on interviews she did that in some way involved the Holocaust. But when one of the 12 stories was recently featured in The New Yorker's fiction issue, an accompanying note explained that her writing is indeed factual.
The 60-something Krall was a reporter for Polityka from 1957 to 1981 when martial law was imposed and her publications were banned. Her award-winning books have been translated into 15 languages, (the English version is by Madeline G. Levine). Yet the boundary between fact and fiction can seem blurred in her work, for Krall writes in an unadorned but intimate style, moving in fractured time, creating a rhythm that might resemble contemporary fiction.
"My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue," Krall wrote in one of the "Hamburg" stories. "And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen."
In "Portrait With a Bullet in the Jaw," Blatt is a survivor living in California. Krall accompanies him back to his village, where they try to meet up with the Polish man who had agreed to hide him and two friends and then ordered them killed. Blatt was the only one to escape; the bullet intended to kill him has remained lodged in his jaw for more than 50 years.
When a man asks him why he holds onto the bullet. Blatt realizes that without it, he would "lose everything. If I had it removed, I would lose it, and this way it sits in my jaw and I know that it's there."
In another story, a Jewish woman finds refuge with a childless Polish couple in 1943, hiding out in their closet. She becomes pregnant; the wife begins to go out with pillows under her clothing, and then takes the baby out as though it were her own. The Jewish woman slips away, and the couple raise the child. As a young woman, she finds out the truth of her parents and then travels to meet "the woman from Hamburg" who tells her, "I had to agree to everything. I wanted to live." And then she says, "Don't ever come here again."
Krall pays great attention to detail -- the ribbons sewn onto a pillow used to create the look of pregnancy, for example.
As she once explained in an interview, "We know the world through details. We never see it in its entirety, only its fragments. And that's how you should write about the world, making sure you select the fragments that really matter."