Night of the Living Jews

Igor Ostachowicz
Night of the Living Jews
  • W.A.B., Warszawa 2012
    123 × 195, 256 Pages
    ISBN: 978-83-7747-700-7
    Translation rights: W.A.B.

Night of the Living Jews deserves attention for at least several reasons. Above all Ostachowicz has succeeded in giving a literary reworking to a topic that is important for the Polish collective imagination, and to tell a story which has demanded to be told for years. Here we see Warsaw, which was razed to the ground during the Second World War, as a wild, dormant graveyard, where the people killed at the time have suddenly materialised as phantoms. Here we have face-to-face encounters between the living and the not-living. Who is really at home in Warsaw, in Poland – a place branded by genocide? This novel, excellently written in a shocking, unsettlingly “in­appropriate” genre, seeks the answers. The piquant, comical style of pop-culture horror fiction would seem at odds with the topic of the Holocaust. Even the title, paraphrasing a classic horror film, by juxtaposing the word “Dead” and the word “Jew”, may cause concern.
An avalanche of events is set off by an amulet – a silver heart stolen from the Jews – whose possessor is guaranteed success. The main character, who as the action develops will become more and more like a comic super-hero trying to save the world from annihilation, lives with his girlfriend in the Warsaw district of Muranów, which is built on top of the ruins of the ghetto. One day, through an open trapdoor in the cellar, out come… deceased Jews in tattered coats. Gradually it turns out their favourite way of spending their time is in Arkadia, the nearby shopping mall.

And yet Night of the Living Jews is a very well thought-out, mature piece of writing. Ostachowicz lucidly explains the principles of the world he has cre­ated. The Arkadia shopping mall, a place of non-stop happiness thoroughly sustained by trade turnover, gets mixed up with the Muranów district’s ghost world. The commonly held, though locally taboo truth about an alien threat that hovers around the modernised, Europeanised Warsaw city centre actually becomes reality. The idea of writing the novel in the style of hor­ror is both lyrical and strikingly apt, dictated by historic facts. The Jewish history of non-existence has to be completed through menace, through the materialisation of things nobody wants to know about or remember. The way in which the main character becomes aware of this process (and also of the power symbolised by the amulet) forms the profound, intriguing drama of the novel.

- Kazimiera Szczuka

Igor Ostachowicz (born 1968) graduated in international relations. He has worked as a paramedic at the Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology, as a manager at a number of companies, and for the past few years as a civil servant. At present he is secretary of state in the Polish Prime Minister’s office, where he writes the Prime Minister’s speeches and acts as his adviser and public relations manager.

Excerpt

We started with ice cream – I thought corpses didn’t eat, but they do; only Skinny just had a Diet Coke, while the rest of us had a large portion each.

            “So how does this deal work?” asked Chirico, shooting straight from the hip. Skinny tried to kick her under the table, but there was no need, because Rachel answered for herself, with a slight shrug, the way children talk about their parents’ fancy ideas.

            “They’ve got to do something to make me smile.”

            Chirico pondered this remark.

            “So what’s the point? Some sort of obligation to smile? Why should you have to smile?”

            Rachel gave a deep sigh and stared into her ice-cream cup, aimlessly poking the long spoon into it. “Daddy would like me to go to heaven, but at the entrance you’re supposed to smile, and I can’t do it. Because of me he’s stuck too.”

            “And what about the others, that whole underground city?” I cut in. “What are they still doing here?”

            “It varies. The only people who are left under Warsaw are the ones who’ve got something wrong – most of them are in shock. They can’t pull themselves together, some of them are angry with God and refuse to take another step forwards, some are horribly afraid they’ll never understand it all, or even worse, that they’ll have to be forgiving. There are also some people who worked for the police or were in the Sonderkommando – those ones have yet other reasons, but either way, they’re all stuck here. They’re waiting for some time to go by, and once you’re dead time passes in a different way. My father is quite a different story – he’s a tough guy, he’s not in shock at all, he was in the Jewish Uprising, then the Polish one, and everyone respects him. He just stayed behind for my sake, because he doesn’t want to leave me here on my own.”

            As I listened to Rachel, I became more and more convinced that something inevitable was going on. She explained that our troubles were occurring because something strange had happened, and lots of the dead people had been woken up – hardly anyone had been able to lie in peace in the earth for the past few days, they were all fidgeting, tossing and turning like somebody who can’t get to sleep. The most badly warped of them had formed a group. This lot had taken a fancy to the idea of liquidating anyone they didn’t like. They had seen the people they had once loved being exterminated, so now they wanted to see the extermination of everyone they didn’t like. It was all starting to fit together in my mind. The fear came back to me that I had felt while I was down in the underground, and there was nothing I could do to restrain it – there were evil thoughts seething away in thousands of minds, both living and dead, and even if I were yet more indifferent than I already am by nature, and by the strength of my convictions, I was just as likely to cop it as anyone else, so I came up in goose bumps, though maybe it was the ice cream, plus the A/C.

            “And there’s magic too,” Rachel went on. “Something’s been disturbed, the order’s been upset, it feels as if an immense force could end up in evil hands.”

            “But why aren’t you smiling now, Rachel?” said Chirico, who liked the story, but on whom it hadn’t made a major impression, because one, she hadn’t been down in the cellar, and two, those weren’t the sort of films she downloaded off the Internet. “You’ve had some ice cream and it’s great here in Arkadia. I always smile when I come in here.”

            Rachel winced slightly.

            “Because they’re giving me strange looks.” She was right. The customers at other tables were glancing at her with disgust, worse yet, the staff were staring at her with indignation and a sense of duty, and then finally I saw two security guards coming our way. Well, yes, it’s not their fault, I justify them mentally – Arkadia isn’t for tramps and scruffs, their job is to throw those people out of here, and Rachel happens to look the way she looks. So they come up and inform us that this lady must leave, because she’s upsetting the other customers, and they’re going to escort her to the exit.

            “But why?” said Skinny, with a note of hysteria in her voice.

            “Because she’s upsetting the other customers,” they repeated their stock reply.

            “This lady has paid for her ice cream and she has a right to finish eating it,” I remarked in a tone only mildly spiced with adrenaline. In theory it was a good idea, but the ice cream was almost entirely gone, which one of them pointed out with a stubby finger.

            “Good grief!” exclaimed Chirico very loud. “Excuse me, but do we look like hooligans?”

            “You don’t, but this lady…” he said, pointing at Rachel, “….is upsetting the other customers.”

            “But this lady is a girl guide from a historical reconstruction group! Only an hour ago she was at the state commemorations! She shook hands with the Lady Mayoress, and now you want to throw her out?”

            At that they were rather bewildered. That Chirico’s really smart.

            “It’ll be a terrible scandal,” I added. “Not just you, but your boss’ll have to explain himself to the media too.”

            “I’ll just go and get changed, I don’t want to upset anyone,” said Rachel with a sad look on her face.

            What a good actress – she immediately sensed what that was about, I thought in admiration, and at once realised she must have had to pull off some tougher tricks than that one in the days when she’d been in hiding. One of the security guards went off for a brief consultation over his walkie-talkie.

            “All right, we’re sorry.” He even managed to force a crooked smile. “But once you’ve eaten your ice cream,” he said, glancing meaningfully at the empty cup, “please go and change – we have to look after our customers’ welfare.”

            And they were gone.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones