Seventy years ago, a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A Polish author looks back on this bleak moment in a fairy tale for children, raising questions about memories of Hiroshima and the Holocaust in Poland. But is Hiroshima material for a children's fairy tale at all?
I met the author, Joanna Rudniańska, in her apartment in Ursynów, Warsaw's Southern district. Built in the last decade of Communism, it is an interesting experiment in creating functional urban landscape and Modernist housing. It's the end of July, everything around is lavish green – with narrow alleys winding between buildings and their small gardens.
In the little room where she writes and sleeps, a couple of black-and-white photographs pinned to the wall catch my eye. Two of them, positioned one over the other and pinned to the wall slightly to the right of the little table which serves as her writing desk, feature images which are strikingly similar, yet that were taken a thousand kilometers away from one another. The first one shows two elegantly dressed people – a man and woman – standing on some kind of a terrace overlooking the ruined city landscape - razed almost flat to the ground with only some debris and a couple of new houses standing here and there. It's Hiroshima a couple years after the war. The other picture is the iconic photograph of the Warsaw ghetto, razed to the ground with only one building standing in the centre - St. Augustine Church.
Speaking of the photos, Rudniańska remarks that the Hiroshima photo is in fact very similar to another war photograph - that of the little girl standing on the roof of a building with a wide panorama of the devastated Warsaw ghetto stretching behind her. One thing these pictures all have in common is a specific distortion of perspective, as if the eye was misled by the total flatness of the landscape.
"For me the most shocking image of how war affects us, is what it does to towns and cities," Rudniańska says and mentions Warsaw and Hiroshima, but also Sarajevo, Bagdad and Aleppo.
These cities and their stories are at the centre of many of Rudniańska's books. The books themselves are books about war.
Alien Planets, Dragons, and Ghetto Cats
Rudniańska is the author of several novels and a book of short stories, written for adults but also children. They are all very different. Her debut novel Rok smoka (Year of the Dragon) was a quasi-fantasy tale about a girl growing up in the shadow of her father, who every night turns into a dragon. The book, which may strike one as a transposition of some concepts of Jungian psychology, was translated into Japanese. Another one called Miejsca (Places), is actually set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic city reminiscent of Tokyo. Mój tata z obcej planety (My Dad from Another Planet) was a short novel for teenagers and young adults with narrative split between the fantasy world of video games and an alternative political reality with references to the war in the Balkans. The protagonist of Kotka Brygidy was a cat moving between the two sides of the wall separating the Warsaw ghetto, establishing a connection between its 10 year old owner and her Jewish friend stuck in the ghetto.
Two of her last books are fairy tales. XY is about two twin girls brought up by two different families in the time of the Holocaust. The last one Bajka o Wojnie, which was published in Poland in Spring 2015, may be the most bizarre of them all. If we said it was a children's tale about the bombing of Hiroshima, we would be quite close to the truth.
Wojna means War
The Polish title (which can be translated as Fairy Tale about War) holds an ambivalence. Wojna (which means "war" in Polish) is actually also the name of the female protagonist of the book. Set in an undefined city ('Beyond seven Seas and by seven Rivers'), it is a story of a little girl brought up with great respect and affection for her father - a military general very fond of discipline, but also of his little girl. Wojna also has a mother she detests and this feeling gets even stronger when the mother gives birth to a baby boy. Wojna now hates her mother but she also envies her little brother, as he can grow up to become a soldier. But this will not happen, as the war breaks out and changes everything in the life of the family. And then there's the great blinding explosion - and Wojna's brother and mother both die. The blast comes just as Wojna wishes her brother and mother would die. The rest of the story brings the depiction of the terrible aftermath of the explosion seen through the eyes of the girl, as well as the development of the psychological guilt which is now a permanent part of Wojna's consciousness. However all of this is shown as if it actually was a fairy tale, with the figure of a mysterious saviour and a kind of happy ending. In the end we can see the father march back on scene again - but he's now much smaller. In the last sequence Wojna changes her name - she's now a different person.
Hiroshima for Children and Adults
Some fragments of Bajka can strike one as particularly drastic and some of the more graphic details might be considered inappropriate for children. In the aftermath of the explosion Wojna sees corpses flow in the river and she observes how skin comes off people's arms like a smooth kimono.
Rudniańska explains that at first she wasn't thinking of Bajka as a fairy tale for children. In fact, the tale was part of a longer novel for adults Sny o Hiroszimie (Dreams of Hiroshima) - now finished, but not yet published.
"It tells the story of a Japanese man living in Warsaw today, who tries to cope with his trauma of surviving Hiroshima. The story told in Bajka is basically the story he tells to his therapist," says Rudniańska.
The novel juxtaposes the man's perspective and experience with that of Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe. It actually mixes the two perspectives as it introduces a fictive figure of a Jewish Holocaust survivor, one of the couple thousand Jews saved by Chiune Sugihara. In a strange turn of events this character finds himself in Hiroshima when the bomb explodes, merging the otherwise much different fates.
"I wrote this book so that we can better see these experiences, know what the Holocaust and Hiroshima were and what they still are. Or better, what they still can be to us," explains Rudniańska.
In one of the scenes of the book, making up a series of hypothetical Japanese-Polish conversations, a man and woman talk about Hiroshima and the Holocaust over breakfast. They talk about a school teacher who brings up the subject of Hiroshima every time she speaks of the Holocaust. ”But what has one to do with the other?,” asks the man. That question rephrased and repeated, keeps coming back throughout the novel. The woman says that maybe it's because the teacher likes crosswords, as they are both 9-letter words starting with an H, both definitions of genocide. But as the man poignantly remarks, the Hiroshima bombing is not even considered genocide. Rather, as the woman notes, the Holocaust and Hiroshima can stand as the two contemporary models of death, both very popular today. One is the sudden death which arrives when you least expect it, the other is slow and degrading, and sometimes can take years. "Like heart-attack and cancer," says the man ironically.
In fact, Sny o Hiroszimie may be more a book about how popular culture sees Hiroshima and the Holocaust today, through the lens of film, books, comics (in the novel we will find references to a book Hiroshima Pika and a Japanese comic strip about the boy Gen, there's also a treatment of an unrealized Hiroshima movie).
"It's more about the cultural phenomenon of Hiroshima rather than Hiroshima itself. Hiroshima, like the Holocaust, is seen here as a second-hand experience, a part of contemporary mass culture," says Rudniańska.
Hiroshima in Poland
When the bomb fell on Hiroshima August 6, 1945 (and then on Nagasaki two days later), the war in Poland and Europe had been over for more than 2 months. Life was returning to the otherwise devastated country. Warsaw was being rebuilt, newspapers were coming out and they were writing about what happened.
Rudniańska explains how going through old issues of Życie Warszawy, she came across an article about Winston Churchill, who on the day of the bombing declared with some pride that British were also engaged in the research which produced the bomb. Generally there was a sense of something ground-breaking and awe-inspiring when the news came, she explains.
Hiroshima became a part of life in Poland and the whole Soviet Block too. Rudnianska explains how growing up after the war her whole generation was raised in the shadow of the nuclear war. Children in Poland were taught about nuclear threat and how to deal with it, she says.
She recalls how children were taught to put on gas masks and find the nuclear shelter, which was in the basement of her school in Muranów, the part of Warsaw where she grew up. An unspecified nuclear threat was also one of the topics of conversation after school. "In the yard we were talking about it all the time," she recalls.
Dragons and Drones
When I ask her why she constantly writes about war - also in her books for children - she takes a moment and says that she would like them to know. That is, to know what war really is.
"This is ever more important in a time of omnipresent violence and video games," she says. "With military drones flying around and images of bombings and executions on TV and YouTube, children now are immune to the reality of war".
She recalls also being asked this question by a Japanese journalist recently. The journalist suggested that maybe she was writing about war because she had grown up on the ruins of the city devastated by war (which is literally true: Muranów was built after the war virtually on and out of the rubble of the ghetto). Rudniańska said then "Maybe'"– but she's not really sure. "One can never know why something happens, why a person is the kind of person he or she is, and why one writes the kind of thing one writes,” she explains.
After a while, she says that she doesn't think it is because she is scared of war or the bomb. Not anymore. Today, she feels she's driven by pure interest. An interest in the change in people brought about by war, turning them into animals and murderers, and making them commit the most terrible crimes. Because then there's peace again, and everyone is nice and kind, she concludes.
She mentions also how now in Japan there seems to be a return of nationalist attitudes, with the political right gaining support of the society. Maybe it's time for fairy-tales again, she says.
Writing about Bajka, the Japanese translator Kazuko Tamura observed that during the last war many people in Japan believed that the war would bring them a better future, and so they didn't complain about wartime hardships. “Children thought of war as something positive. They played with little swords and guns, just like Wojna does in this fairy-tale. This means that, in a sense, all children had Wojna (War) as a second name,” Tamura noted.
Today, like in this children's tale and like before WWII, children still play with little swords and guns - but now they also have video games and paint-balls. And it's all very real, Rudniańska observes.
“The World is silly and war is the silliest thing,” she concludes.
Maybe it really is time for fairy tales again.
Bajka o Wojnie was published by Wydawnictwo Bajka in 2015, with illustrations by Piotr Fąfrowicz.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, August 4, 2015