Smugglers

Henryk Grynberg, Jan Kostański
Smugglers
  • Twój Styl
    Warszawa 2001
    143 x 250
    156 pages
    ISBN 83-7163-207-X


In the introduction to Smugglers, Henryk Grynberg writes that he spent a long time searching for what he found in Kostanski's memoirs: the total identification of a non-Jew, a Polish Christian, with the fate of an exterminated people. Kostanski was raised in Warsaw's Old Town. Some time before the war his father had left the family, and with three children to care for, his mother had become a fruit trader at Hala Mirowska, Warsaw's central market. She was encouraged to go into this business by a locally well-known Jewish trader, Ajzyk Wierzbicki, a widower with two children to look after. The two families became close friends. After the outbreak of war, the Kostanskis moved to Krochmalna Street, into the same housing estate where the Wierzbicki family was living. Not long after, the courtyard where their tenement building was located was cut in half by the ghetto wall. The Kostanskis and Wierzbickis were still neighbours, but could no longer meet without risking death. Yet their friendship proved stronger than their fear, and soon the young Jan, known as Janek, was regularly slipping across the wall to visit the Wierzbickis. Later on he began to smuggle food into the starving ghetto "professionally" - a profitable enterprise, but as we all know, extremely risky. More than once the boy managed to escape certain death. The real danger, however, still lay ahead of them when, faced with the first large wave of transports to Treblinka, the Kostanskis decided to hide the Wierzbickis on the "Aryan side". But even after being rescued from the ghetto, the Wierzbickis - as well as their guardians, Janek and his mother - faced the Gehenna of wandering about Warsaw and its environs, escape from a train already on its way to Treblinka, and a return to the ghetto, all because on the other side of the wall there was simply nowhere to hide. If one can describe this sort of story as having a happy ending, this one does. Janek and his mother manage to rescue the Wierzbicki family from the ghetto again and to keep them safe until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. They survive, as does a small group of Janek's Jewish friends. This story might have been just as sentimental as it is spiritually uplifting, if it were not for the way it was written. Grynberg and Kostanski's narrative reads almost like an official report; full of significant allusions, it is emotionally discreet. This discretion also strengthens the dramatic force of Smugglers. At first we know nothing about the Kostanskis' emotional motivation, but gradually we start to realise that Janek and Necha, Ayzyk Wierzbicki's daughter, are tied by more than just the friendship of peers (they marry immediately after the war and spend their whole lives together). But only at the end of the book do we guess (though it is never mentioned explicitly) that the whole story must have started with the pre-war love affair of Janek's mother and Ajzyk Wierzbicki; the now adult Kostanski's half-brother was born just after the war. So do these personal motives weaken the force of the book? I don't think so. As Grynberg says, Smugglers is a story of identification - a fairytale dream of how simple life could be if only the people who live alongside each other didn't imagine that something was dividing them.

Piotr Bratkowski