Grynberg’s new book consists of a dozen items that cover such a wide range and are so highly varied that they could form two or three separate smaller books. The main element in the book is autobiography made into epic narrative. Grynberg recalls various episodes from his life: his time at a care centre for Jewish children just after the war, the 1950s and his student days, when the secret services tried to persuade him to be an informer, his first love, which conflicted with his sense of identity and memory of the Holocaust, his work at Voice of America (in the 1970s) and his first clashes over political correctness that edited out Polish and Jewish issues, arguments with a German publisher over translation quality, and his efforts at the start of the twenty-first century to obtain his personal file from the archives of the Institute for National Memory, in order to clear his name of a charge of collaboration with the intelligence agency.
Most of the pieces in the book are memoirs, but there are also some digressions: summaries of the papers read at a conference on Jewish culture after the Second World War; the reprint of a lengthy debate in the press that Grynberg initiated, opposing Eli Wiesel’s universalization of the Holocaust; and an interview Grynberg did with Susan Sontag.
And finally, as if to add a dash more spice to the existing variety, there’s also a short story here, "The Volunteer", about how at the age of forty, just after getting divorced, the narrator goes to Israel to enlist in the army and take part in a war.
Memoirs, documentary, polemic, summaries of papers, a story… Despite the extravagant range of genres, this book is essentially a response to one particular myth: the one that questions the unique nature of the Holocaust and the resulting consequences. It is the myth of ostensible universalism, within whose vast recesses anti-Semitism lies hidden. And so the title of the book announces that Grynberg is going to tell us how the anti-Semites continue to try and share responsibility for the Holocaust with the Jews, and how the Jews continue to try and disarm anti-Semitism with moderation and compliance.
In response, Henryk Grynberg continues to write about the same thing: he adds details, fills in dates and explains obscure matters to show that the Holocaust cannot be made universal, anti-Semitism should not be mollified with compliance, and that we owe the dead loyalty and accuracy. If the past is not the past, the present is not just the day today. If the past contains death, the present has to absorb this death, and die on a daily basis along with the past.
- Przemysław Czapliński
At the Jewish school, the teacher used read extracts from the Jewish classics aloud to us, including Draj matunes (“The Three Gifts”) by Perec. It was about gifts offered to God. In it, a pious Jew has to pass under the cudgels of a line of Cossacks, and he’s just at the end of the row when he notices they’ve knocked off his yarmulka, so he goes back for it. When he falls lifeless, the angels fly down, seize his yarmulka and carry it off to God, who is extremely pleased with this gift. This fairy tale was different from the Greek myths, which I had read before then, in the way that Judaism was always different from Hellenism, and I never forgot the difference. These Jewish tales made an impression on us, but outside school we only read books about the Wild West – gone yellow, crumbling and falling apart, they came from the lending libraries that had survived the war and were flourishing. You had to sign up for these books in a queue, so we signed up for several libraries all at once. That was our version of television. Izio Ekhajzer read the fastest. He did nothing else, just lay on the couch and read. He also read during classes, under the bench, and told us the stories on the way home from school. With pale eyes and fair hair, he spoke impeccable Polish, but I don’t know where he had survived, because no one asked, and no one said. The Wild West stories, where there was always shooting going on, using both hands too, demanded some lively gesticulation, so the people passing us in the street used to give us mistrustful looks. Once the lady who taught Polish set us an essay on “What books I like reading and why”. We all knew very well what books we were supposed to like and why, but Izio wrote the truth, and the boys began to cry: “Please Miss, please Miss, Ekhajzer has written a brilliant essay!”
“All right, Ekhajzer, read it out.”
Izio stood up and started reading.
“I like books about the Wild West, because they tell us about people who are brave and free, who are completely self-reliant and manage without anybody else’s help. I like them because they’re far more interesting and real than the ones we’re told to read at school…”
“That’s enough!” the teacher interrupted him.
“Let him go on!” cried the class, knowing Izio wasn’t bothered about marks, because his family already had passports and their bags were packed.
In those days we lived at 71 Piotrkowska Street, in a flat at the front with a balcony and cork lino left over from the German tenants, because during the war Piotrkowska Street belonged to the Germans (it was called Adolf Hitler Strasse), and a kitchen with ten hotplates because the Germans had a canteen in this building. I lived there for five long and memorable years, from the ages of thirteen to eighteen. Our girl from the village tried to seduce me there. I’m lying on the couch reading, and she sits down beside me and says, move over. The same thing happened when I was lying in bed and she came to turn out my light. A couple of times I came close to it, but set upon by temptation as well as scruples (which nowadays I can’t understand), at the last moment I backed off, and later regretted it (I still do). As soon as the old folks went out for the evening or for some fun at the Jewish club I used to organise parties in the former German canteen. We danced to the tangos and waltzes played by the Polish Radio orchestra under the able, Jewish baton of Jan Camer, and once the programme was over, we sang “The Lone Concertina” and “Proshchai, lyubimy gorod” in Russian – “Farewell, beloved city”, for two or even three parts, because my friends who had come back from Russia were superb at combining Russian music and Jewish musicality. The neighbours used to bang on the ceiling and send the concierge to shut us up, but they never called the militia, because that was the Soviet era. Soviet books, Soviet films, Soviet art, Soviet language. No one used the formal “you” – “panowie” in Polish, because “the panowie – the gentlemen – have gone to London”, and if you wanted to emphasise something, you added “ot co!” – “and that’s it!”.
At school we had a Polish Youth Union day-room-cum-chapel with Generalissimo Stalin in a gold frame and golden epaulettes. I worshipped him. I was born left-handed, but I was forced to use my right hand, because left-handedness was regarded as a Jewish trait (Jews do everything the wrong way round), so I never learned to draw, but I could draw Stalin without any difficulty. And that was from first sight, as soon as the Soviet officers hung him up on the wall for us at Dobre. And every time I saw him in the papers. It was always the same half-profile, the eyebrows, the moustache, the upright collar and epaulettes. I got so good at it that I could draw him blindfold. He was my liberator, my saviour, because who if not him? I loved their casual shirts with the stiff shoulder pieces. For me and my mother it was obviously thanks to them we were alive. In Polański’s shocking film about the Jewish pianist who survived the destruction of the ghetto and the whole of Warsaw, what moved me most was the final sequence with the Soviet soldier and his automatic pistol, so authentic that it brought tears to my eyes. I knew every one of their officer and NCO ranks, and the hallmarks of all their weapons. In fact the other boys in Dobre knew them too. Nor could I believe that my contemporary John Shalikashvili – a Georgian born in Poland, whom President Clinton (thinking he’d find favour with the Poles) named his chief of staff – did not know that his father was an officer in the Waffen-SS. The eight-year-old boy, who later followed his father’s and his grandfather’s example and chose a life in officer’s uniform, used to sit on his father’s knee without knowing – he didn’t even ask – what sort of uniform his daddy was wearing.
When there was an appeal for the citizens to decorate their balconies for the First of May, I brought home the golden Stalin from the day-room and hung it out like a holy icon on Corpus Christi. The neighbours, who came to our flat to watch the First of May parade as usual, did not at first know what was hanging from the balustrade, and were a bit surprised when now and then someone in the procession waved a clenched fist at them – that ambiguous communist greeting. Our next-door neighbour was a pre-war engineer who had a French wife. They had no children, just a little French dog, a tiny thing that looked like a miniature fawn and trembled all over – the exact embodiment of what was meant by the phrase “as delicate as a little French dog”. So after Stalin’s appearance on our balcony Mrs Francuzka – “Mrs Frenchwoman”, as everybody called her – started lending me books, such as Gargantua and Pantagruel, Colas Breugnon, Captain Fracasse and Manon Lescaut, which began to supplant from my imagination The Young Guard, The Trenches of Stalingrad, People of Clean Conscience, and even a Soviet catechism entitled How Steel Became Hard.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones