Accused: Wiera Gran – Agata Tuszyńska
Agata Tuszyńska's controversial biography of the cabaret singer Wiera Gran accuses Władysław Szpilman, an icon of Polish resistance against the Nazis, of actually collaborating with the Gestapo during the Polish occupation
Władysław Szpilman is known to many as the famous pianist played by Adrian Brody in Roman Polański's "The Pianist". He died in 2000 - a decade later Agata Tuszyńska wrote the biography of the cabaret dancer Wiera Gran, who was also locked inside the Warsaw Ghetto. In this book, Szpilman is accused of working for the Gestapo and trying to command the assassination of Gran, also accused of collaborating with the Nazi Regime. In opposition to his own memoirs published in 1945, those allegations, tarnishing the reputation of the iconic figure, created a great debate in the Polish media following the release of Accused: Wiera Gran in October 2010. Tuszyńska describes her book as a document-fiction inspired by the life of Wiera Gran, in which she too plays a part:
(It is) a story within which she plays the main character, as well as myself and my investigation, inspired by archive documents and by my meeting with her. How do we draw the line of what is acceptable ? Who gives us the right to judge those who had to endure the horrors of war, the horrors we've been spared? Can we use the same tools of moral evaluation within a radically different historical context? She did collaborate, in terms of participating to the structures imposed by the occupant. She had become a unique cog in the grand machine of the Ghetto. I am also trying to understand what could have caused the denunciations of Szpilman, the trial he initiated, his refusal to hire the singer (though she supposedly had recommended him for his job at he Sztuka Café) in 1945 as he was director of the radio - what happened between them, did he have something to hide?
The journalist also tries to replace the story within a specific context, offering an optimal view of Wiera's everyday life in the Ghetto as well a s a kaleidoscopic vision of the artistic life in European capitals during the occupation. It poses the question of whether Wiera Gran is the victim of war or the victim of her own self and her memories ? According to Tuszyńska, not only did the singer never leave the ghetto, remaining a prisoner of her trauma, but the daring author makes a bold projection, suggesting all victims of great tragedies might relate somehow to Wiera Gran, implying that we might all become collaborators given the right circumstances.
Born in 1916, Wiera Gran achieved fame as a singer during the pre-war years 1918-1939. Until the beginning of the Second World War she recorded several dozen songs. It was for her that Władysław Szpilman composed a popular song "Her First Ball". Between spring of 1941 and mid-1942 Gran lived with her family and worked in the Warsaw Ghetto. Later on she managed to run away to the Aryan side and survived the war. It was a period which casted suspicions of her collaboration with Nazis. On many occasions Wiera Gran tried to prove her innocence. Two post-war proceedings in Poland were dismissed. In search for a better future the artist immigrated to Israel in 1950, though a disreputable opinion hung over her for a long time and eventually made the artist leave Israel for France.
Singled out as undeniable black sheep in the history of Polish Jews during the Holocaust, Wiera Gran and her story were avoided for years by most publishers and major media. Finally Agata Tuszyńska, following her biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, found enough bravery to explore the story once again and initiated interviews with the exiled artist. The journalist has regularly visited Gran in Paris for over 5 years until the ultimate death of the singer in 2007. During that time, the journalist had the opportunity to hear Gran speak openly about the wartime memories and reveal her definitive testimony.
Gran first shared her memories in 1980 in her book A Relay of Slanderers, where she publicly spoke of her suspicions about Szpilman's collaboration with the Nazis. Later on, in 1996 she repeated her version in the research conducted by the Spielberg Foundation. The singer claimed that her former colleague worked in the Warsaw Ghetto as a policeman and assisted Nazis in brining Jews to Umshlagplatz.
In immediate reaction to Tuszyńska's book, the son of "The Pianist", Andrzej Szpilman, accused the Polish publisher of repeating baseless incitement against his late father. "My father was a victim of the Nazis, not a collaborator", "Straight after the war [he] published his diaries under the title 'Death of a City', and no one who survived the ghetto as he himself had, ever questioned his version of events", he wrote in the German daily Der Spiegel. Facing accusations of partiality and repeating false information, Tuszyńska explains: "I tried to write this book as honestly as I could. I take responsibility for every sentence I wrote. When I tell her life story, if such events did happen in her life or even if those things happened in her imagination (…), I believe that it would be unfair to overlook them".
Agata Tuszyńska's portraiture of Gran appears as one of a bitter, unhappy and beset convict with uncompromising accusations. The woman, trapped in her own memories, felt buried by all her critics. Asked if believed the artist's version of events, Tuszyńska said in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza:
I play a triple role in this book. Firstly - the role of somebody who tries to balance this madness, which does not mean that I do not write about it. Secondly, the role of somebody who did not experience the ghetto, but feels closely enough related with it in order to try to get there inside again, accompanying Wiera Gran. (…) The third role is a verification of what Wiera says and checking her tracks.
The truthfulness of Wiera Gran's testimony was never proven, it was only based on circumstantial evidence of her alleged blame. There is no proof of neither Gran's nor Szpilman's collaboration. However, it must be noted that in her biography, Tuszyńska explicitly never stands on either side.Andrzej Szpilman defends his father's legacy, and calls for the re-editing of the book or its interdiction, joined by numerous colleagues of the pianist, such as former Foreign Affairs minister Władysław Bartoszewski, who personally knew him, claiming those accusation were "untrue and unfounded".
Novelist, poet, biographer, lecturer, journalist, literature and theatre historian, Agata Tuszyńska is one of the most notable figures of contemporary Polish literature. Born in 1959, she discovered her Jewish roots at the late age of 19, without being able to express that new identity. Accused: Wiera Gran is her third book to be translated in French, following the critically acclaimed A familial story about fear" / "Une Histoire familiale de la peur (2006), and Exercices of loss"/"Exercices de la perte (2007).Polish edition:
Oskarżona: Wiera Gran
Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków, październik 2010
- French edition:
Wiera Gran : L'accusée
Translated by Isabelle Jannès-Kalinowski
Publisher : Grasset & Fasquelle, published January 12, 2011
- Source: www.wydawnictwoliterackie.pl, www.yiddishweb.com