August 17, 2012
Saved from the XX century. After us, no one will tell our story, maybe someone will read
Mikołaj Grynberg, Saved from the XX century. After us, no one will tell our story, maybe someone will read it…, Warsaw 2012, p. 350
The crime perpetrated by the Germans against the Jewish people of Poland – was also a crime against an abiding, traditionally integral element of Poland’s entire society. It was the elimination of a group of people, whose contribution to Polish culture probably exceeded their number. For those of us who remember the existence of this group, the Polish society of today is a somewhat different and incomplete society.
(Konstanty Grzybowski, Jews and the Fight for Independence, from Konstanty Grzybowski - Sceptic Thinker, ed. Wiesław Kozub – Ciembroniewicz, Krakow, 2000, p. 167)
Jewish cemeteries devoid of tombstones, with no one left to visit them, became an element of Polish post-war towns, where the tradition of co-existence had left its mark and multiculturalism was an element of history. Despite the years that passed, many of us ask the question, why did this happen? Czesław Miłosz wrote in The Captive Mind that, „man usually has the tendency to consider the order he lives in as natural (...) He does not believe that on a street well known to him, where cats sleep and children play, a rider with a lasso may appear, capturing pedestrians and dragging them off to the butcher’s, where they will be killed immediately and hung on hooks”. The Germans lack of concern, in deciding to turn over the fate of their country to a madman, became a death sentence for millions. Of those Polish Jews who survived, many made telling the story of what they went through their mission. They only need to be heard. Mikołaj Grynberg did just that.
In January 2012, Świat Książki published a collection of interviews conducted by Mikołaj Grynberg, entitled Saved from the XX century. The title is appropriate, the book contains a record of fourteen conversations with Polish Jews who, having survived the trauma of the Holocaust, settled in Israel. It is hard for a historian to determine what these conversations are exactly. As the author himself said, while promoting the book on February 16, 2012, at the Jewish Community Centre of Cracow, it is not a historical work, because he is not a historian. Who is Mikołaj Grynberg? He was educated as a psychologist, is a photographer by passion and an artist who crafts in both words and images. Through his artistic interests he looks for an excuse, as he says, to speak with people and observe the world. He asserts that he is a happy man who has found his place on Earth. He practices a profession, which is his dialogue with the surrounding world. The way he asks questions and reacts to answers given, faithfully conveyed in the book, are reminiscent of the way he speaks about himself during meetings with readers.
I approached Mikołaj Grynberg’s publication with a great deal of distance and uncertainty. I began reading, filled with doubts as to whether someone who is neither a professional historian nor a journalist can handle the task of interviewing survivors of the Holocaust. I received a lesson in humility.
Mikołaj Grynberg is an artisan of conversation, an excellent representative of oral history field, as this form of recording events is now often called. When taking to his interviewees, he does not impose topics or interfere, he only listens intently and stimulates further recollections. Thus, he provides a striking image of life in the XX century – keeping in mind that apart from the subject of occupied Poland, the conversations also concern the periods before and after the war. Most of the memoir pieces have a theme, they touch on and analyze the specific subject at hand. In Saved from the XX century, the author seems to sit down at a table and encourage the other person by just saying “Let’s talk”. He allows the tales to unravel, stories of death, miraculous rescue, almost animal-like fear and the joy of liberation, but – interestingly enough – most of the stories are about love. Could one imagine, that people who had been stripped of all their possessions, their dignity and turned into outlaws, would still seek love? It was all they had left, the only thing that could not be tainted or taken away. The horror of violence and suffering they endured, the grief associated with losing a loved one remained with them.
For the most part, Grynberg did not interfere with his subjects’ statements. The exact record of these conversations is an acutely emotional retelling of those days. There is grief and longing in them, for that which is irrevocably lost, as well as a bitterness and anger toward the evil people who dealt them this fate. One might think that after sixty years, injuries of the soul would not bleed so profusely, but nothing is further from the truth. There are still tears, but also the joys of newborn children. For these people, life itself is a great triumph.
A significant topic, which recurs many times in the conversations published in this book, is the city of Cracow, as an example of the nostalgia associated with emigration. Ryszard Löw, an excellent publicist and literary critic who has lived in Israel since 1952, speaks of Cracow, and things associated with the city, with a dose of mysticism. His thirty-seven year long absence from the city did not leave him alienated, because Ryszard Löw never left Cracow in spirit! “I may have left Poland, but my head is still in Kraków” (p. 276) he tells Grynberg of his emigration. Löw accentuates his „Cracovian Jewishness” many times, a specific otherness. Speaking of his father, he reminisces, „like all Jews in Kraków he spoke Polish fluently” (p. 285). The interview with Löw is a sort of tale about the spiritual dualism of a Polish Jew. “As a citizen I am Israeli, a Jewish patriot by nationality and a Pole culturally. I know a couple of languages, but they are all foreign in comparison to my mother tongue – Polish” (p. 286). Ryszard Löw has a small pouch where he keeps grass from the fields of Grunwald, but he does not teach his children Polish, because „for us that Polish hump ends with me” (p. 288). His image of the country of his youth is not idealized, there is some sorrow, „Sir, I remember Poland from before the war. It was like was a step-mother to its own children. Really, like a step-mother. They way it always was near the end. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, those years. I side with Miłosz here enitrely: it’s a good thing Poland was not reborn in its pre-war state. (...) Poland, that went through purgatory, could never rise to what it is now, if it hadn’t been for the Warsaw uprising” (p. 288).
Mikołaj Grynberg does not shun questions regarding the present, and his interviewees, such as the aforementioned Ryszard Löw, judge Poland honestly. “For the first time, there is a free Poland. Poland was always a country where writing a good book was considered heroic and reading it a political act. (…) For the first time, Poland is free, actually free. What does that give it? Plenty. Would it have been possible without the Warsaw uprising? (...) End of conversation” (p. 294-295).
The theme of Cracow as well as returning to one’s hometown after the Holocaust also appears in Irka Waks’ story, she was raised there and refers to the city as “my Cracow”. She recalls not being able to return to her pre-war apartment, “I went there and just listened to somebody play my piano. When I asked the caretaker, through the door, to let me in, I heard her yell over the telephone, ‘The owners are here. Don’t open the door!’” (p. 247). A similar story, though set in a different time-frame, many years after the war, was told to Mikołaj Grynberg by another Cracovian, Efraim Laaden. “It was my eightieth birthday and I took my daughters to my city, I wanted to show them my home (…) We’re right nearby and there’s a taxi parked near number 7. I walk up to it, but there’s no one inside. I look around and see a guy standing, so I ask him about the driver. Turns out it’s his cab. We ride with him for a bit and talk, so I tell him that I used to live here and so on. He stops and asks if my name is Landersdorfer. I tell him that used to be my name (…) We became friends after that and I always used to call to wish him well before Christmas” (p. 182).
In his conversation with Grynberg, Marcel Goldman also brings up his Cracow roots, being brought up there before the war. “I know I speak like they do in Cracow. I even have a odd story about that. In eighty-one I was here, talking on the phone with someone. In Hebrew of course, and it was a professional call. At some point he says to me, „What street are you from in Cracow?”. He didn’t ask whether I was from Poland or Cracow, only what street (p. 300). The sadness felt after leaving life in Poland, the world of one’s youth, never to return, is quite palpable when reading the book.
But not all of Mikołaj Grynberg’s subjects wanted to speak openly about the past. The selection of statements in the interviews is quite evident. For many, memories of the war are so real that even talking about them would be like reliving the nightmare. Not able to shoulder this load, they avoid the subject. Samuel Willenberg was a prisoner in Treblinka and wrote the account „Revolt in Treblinka”, thanks to which a detailed map of the camp is known to us today. He was unable to talk about the time he was sorting clothing and found his “younger sister’s tiny coat and his older sister’s skirt” (p. 125). His wife has to take over telling the story. Ryszard Löw, mentioned before, ignores a question about the war, meaningfully staring the author straight in the eye. Mietek Raubvogel, from Lwów, at one point says that he doesn’t speak about it. “I don’t, and that’s that. No use trying, I won’t tell you anyway” (p. 189).
It is a known fact, that Wanda Półtawska, a prisoner of KL Ravensbrück, had to pour her memories onto paper to cleanse herself of them. Because surviving a nightmare is one thing, but living with the awareness of it is another. After reading Mikołaj Grynberg’s Saved from the XX century… one might ponder at length which is more difficult.
Undoubtedly, the value of the conversations held and published by Mikołaj Grynberg is their authenticity, therefore Saved from the XX century. After us, no one will tell our story, maybe someone will read it… should be regarded as a collection of unique accounts concerning our most recent history. One can definitely not be indifferent to it.