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Henryk Grynberg

Henryk Grynberg, photo: Elżbieta Lempp
Henryk Grynberg, photo: Elżbieta Lempp

A novelist and short-story writer, poet, playwright and essayist who has won many prestigious literary awards and is the author of more than twenty books, this chronicler of the fate of the Polish Jews was born on July 4, 1936.

Henryk Grynberg and his mother were the only survivors from their whole, large family. He spent the years 1942-1944 in hiding places and on 'Aryan papers'. After the war, he lived in Łódź and Warsaw. He became an actor in the State Jewish Theatre company in Warsaw; he defected while the company was touring the USA in 1967, and he has lived in America ever since.

Scena z przedstawienia "Matka Courage i jej dzieci", 1967. Na zdjęciu: Estera Kowalska i Henryk Grynberg., fot. Franciszek Myszkowski/Teatr Żydowski im. Estery Racheli i Idy Kamińskich
Scene from the performance Mother Courage and her Children, 1967. In the photograph: Estera Kowalska and Henryk Grynberg, photo: Franciszek Myszkowski/Jewish Theatre in Warsaw

Grynberg published his first story in 1959; it was later included in his debut collection, The 'Antigone' Crew (1963). In the works that he published in Poland, as in those that he was able to publish as an emigré (without worrying about the censor), he told the stories of those who died during the war and of those who survived to live afterwards in Łódź, Warsaw, or New York, struggling to come to terms with their own memory and with the fact that others did not remember. As one of his protagonists asks: 'How can people live when everything that made life worth living is dead?' This is also the principal theme of his poems, which combine to make up the long lament of a survivor who lives to cultivate the memory of those who were murdered, who becomes a 'keeper of the graves' in a world infested with nihilism and materialism, a world increasingly indifferent to the fate of the victims.

Grynberg makes abundant use of biographical and autobiographical material. His Jewish protagonists are usually the narrators, but their personal experiences have a metaphorical dimension and are usually supplemented by the experiences of other 'survivors'. Grynberg's books are short and written in a scrupulously economical language where both sarcasm and lyricism sometimes appear. Each new book is a further record of the fates of people who have been saved from oblivion by the writer in the conviction that doing so is not only the duty of literature towards the victims of the Holocaust, but also a confirmation of the sanctity of human life itself.

The novel Jewish War (1965), honoured with the Kościelscy Literary Award, translated into Hebrew, English and German, raised a lot of controversy, since it showed the times of occupation in a way that wasn't well perceived by the authorities of the time. It finally succeeded thanks to the positive opinion of the prominent Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Grynberg recalled that self-censorship made him use fictional elements in an otherwise autobiographical story about the tragical fate of Jews living around Warsaw.

Four years later Grynberg published a sequel to Jewish WarVictory, written in the United States.

Victory – which is the second part of a five-volume work on Polish-Jewish fate – starts with liberation, in the moment when most stories about the Holocaust end. Liberation is not shown as the ending, but as a continuation of suffering for people who escaped death, but not terrible losses, and who were left without any help and care in a state of post-traumatic stress – wrote the author.

The long duration of the war trauma in the poverty of Stalinist times, has been shown in the collection Życie ideologiczne, osobiste, codzienne i artystyczne (Ideological, personal, everyday and artistic life, published collectively in 1998).

The book is an accusation, proving the deliquency of the political system, in which the parents and grandparents of today's 40 and 20 year olds were brought up and faded away. It's worth it to dedicate some time to a part of this accusation.
It doesn's speak of crimes which still have not been brought to court – the tortures of  the Ministry of Public Security, corrupted prosecutors and judges. Grynberg is interested in the crimes that aren't judged – especially one, that is the beginning of all others: moral depravity that was implemented in the Polish society – wrote Anka Kowalska ("Gazeta Wyborcza", 19.01.2001).

In the book Drohobych, Drohobych (nominated for a Nike Award in 1997), maybe for the first time Grynberg resigns from autobiographical perspective and lets other witnesses of the Holocaust talk. Each of the stories in the collection is a testimony of a different person. The eponymous short story is told by Bruno Schultz's student, Leopold Lustig, while others take place in nazi ghettos, in Auschwitz, and also after the war in the United States, in Slovacchia or in Hungary.

Memorbuch (nominated for a Nike Award, 2000) goes further with the history of Polish Jews. The theme is the 1968 antisemitic witch-hunt. The main protagonist is Adam Bronberg, a Jewish communist, who, after the war, will become the chair of the state's academic press, but will have to leave the country after March 1968. Grynberg's book is considered one of the best literary descriptions of that time.

In the essay Uchodźcy (Refugees, nominated for a Nike Award, 2004) many threads are interwined: Grynberg writes about a group of intellectuals and artists studying in Łódź, about the American careers of Krzysztof Komeda, Marek Hłasko, Jerzy Frykowski and Roman Polański, about the Polish emmigrants, wanderers, refugees. Personal stories of Grynberg's loneliness and his mother's travels to Israel and then to the US are also the matter of the story. The book is filled with a sensation of being estranged, which was prominent among Polish Jews, but this time serious cogitation is hidden under the layer of anecdotes and even jokes.

Grynberg says about the primary subject of his work:

There is no subject more important for humanity, until something worse than Holocaust happens, and let's all hope it won't happen. Holocaust is a learning experience and a warning for the civilisation we live in. A turning point. History of the Jews is very specific, but everyone can learn from it, because it was never going on in a void and it concerns everyone else involved. This is my message. 

Selected Bibliography

  • Żydowska wojna (The Jewish War) (novel). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1965.
  • Zwycięstwo (Victory) (novel). Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1969.
  • Antynostalgia (Anti-Nostalgia) (poems). London: Oficyna Poetów i Malarzy, 1971.
  • Życie ideologiczne (Ideological Life) (novel). London: Polonia Book Fund, 1975.
  • Życie Osobiste (Personal Life) (novel). London: Polonia Book Fund, 1975.
  • Wiersze z Ameryki (Poems from America) (poems). London: Oficyna Poetów i Malarzy, 1980.
  • Życie codzienne i artystyczne (Everyday and Artistic Life). (novel). Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1980.
  • Prawda nieartystyczna (The Non-Artistic Truth) (essays). Berlin: Wydawnictwo Archipelag, 1984.
  • Szkice rodzinne (Family Sketches) (stories). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1990.
  • Wróciłem (I Have Returned) (poems 1964-1989). Warsaw: PIW, 1991.
  • Kadisz (Kaddish) (novel). Krakow: Znak, 1992.
  • Dziedzictwo (Heritage) (prose). London: Aneks, 1993.
  • Dzieci Syjonu (Children of Zion). Warsaw: Karta, 1994.
  • Rysuję w pamięci (Sketching in Memory) (poems). Poznań: a5, 1995.
  • Drohobycz, Drohobycz (stories). Warsaw: W.A.B., 1997.
  • Ojczyzna (Motherland) (stories). Warsaw: W.A.B., 1999.
  • Memorbuch. Warsaw: W.A.B., 2000 (more...).
  • Szmuglerzy (Smugglers) (with Jan Kostański). Warsaw: Twój Styl, 2001 (more...).

Selected translations

  • Czech:Zidovska valka. Vitezstvi (Żydowska wojna i Zwycięstwo), Prague: Aurora, 1996.
  • Dutch:De Joodse Oorlog (Żydowska wojna), Utrecht: Bruna & Zoon, 1968.
  • English:Child of the Shadows (Żydowska wojna), London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1969.The Victory (Zwycięstwo), Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993.Children of Zion (Dzieci Syjonu), Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997.Drohobycz, Drohobycz. Penguin USA, 2002
  • French:California Kaddish (Kadisz). Paris: Edition Balland, 1991.La Guerre des juifs (Żydowska wojna i Zwycięstwo). Paris: Balland, 1994.
  • German:Die jÜdische Krieg (Żydowska wojna). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972.Kinder Zions (Children of Zion). Leipzig: Reclam, 1995.Kalifornisches Kaddisch (Kadisz). Frankfurt: Neue Kritik, 1993.Drohobycz, Drohobycz. Zsolnay, 2000.
  • Hebrew:Hamilhama Hayehudit (Żydowska wojna), Tel Aviv: Sifriath Poalim, 1968.Yaldey Tsiyon (Dzieci Syjonu), Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1995.
  • Italian:La guerra degli ebrei (Żydowska wojna), Rome: Edizioni E/O, 1992.Ritratti di famiglia (Szkice rodzinne), Florence: Giuntina, 1994.

Source:; copyright: Stowarzyszenie Willa Decjusza, updated by NMR, May 2016.'s picture
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