The Holocaust in Polish Literature: 7 Key Books
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Polish Literature: 7 Key Books, The train track leading to Auschwitz II-Birkenau gatehouse. Today Auschwitz - Birkenau Museum. Photo: Franciszek Mazur/Forum Auschwitz II-Birken, center, auschwitz_muzeum_forum.jpg
How did Polish literature cope with the Holocaust as ‘the new literary experience’? Culture.pl looks at the ways in which authors reacted to the ‘unthinkable’ and glimpses at a canon in the making with 7 important books written in Polish.
There can be little doubt as to the fact that the majority of what we today call the Holocaust or Shoah took place in the Polish territories occupied by Nazi Germany. Over the course of three years of World War II, some 6 million Jews, half of them Polish Jews, perished in the unprecedented massive terror and violence that was unleashed against them by the occupiers. This meant that Polish authors, like no other, had first-hand knowledge and often personal experience of the mechanisms and atrocities suffered by the Jews throughout the war.
How did Polish literature and writers of the Polish language respond to one of the most terrifying events in the history of Europe and human civilisation? ‘How,’ as Henryk Grynberg once asked, ‘did the Polish language cope with the weight of being an eyewitness, right in the epicentre of the crime?’ Does Polish literature, as he suggested, have greater obligations in dealing with the subject? And is its achievement in this field indeed greater than that of other literatures, say the literary superpowers, like Russian and American, and other European literatures? We try to answer these questions through 7 books that may just be the basis of a canon for Polish literature about the Holocaust.
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Poetry comes first...
But before we get to our list of books, it’s important to note that the first authors to react to the catastrophe launched against the Jews were poets. The earliest poetic testimonies of the ongoing genocide came from two groups: those who were confined within the walls of the packed ghettos, like Władysław Szlengel (author of this bitingly ironic poems in his volume What I Read to the Dead written in the Warsaw Ghetto); or from those trying to survive outside them, in hiding amongst the general Polish population classed as ‘Aryan’ by the German occupiers, like the author of ‘My Last Will’ (Non Omnis Moriar), Zuzanna Ginczanka.
Another early poetic testimony ‘from the other side of the wall’ came from Czesław Miłosz. In poems like ‘Campo dei Fiori’ and ‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’, Miłosz was perhaps one of the first poets to recognise not only the immense horrific nature of the Holocaust (which for him marked the end of the world as we knew it, the end of civilisation as a whole), but also the utmost loneliness and infinite isolation of those who perished (‘our tongue becomes for them / the language of an ancient planet’). Just as importantly, Miłosz was among the first to recognise the sense of guilt which was to befall non-Jewish Polish witnesses (‘And he will count me among helpers of death’) – a topic that would come up in Polish public discourse only much later but which, as we shall see, was not completely absent in the first literary representations of the Holocaust.
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1. ‘Medallions’ by Zofia Nałkowska (1946)
Written immediately after the end of the war, Nałkowska’s Medallions may be one of the most profound and shocking books ever produced. When Nałkowska was writing it, no one knew not only how to write about the Holocaust, but also whether it was at all possible in the first place. Nałkowska found a way.
Her slim book contains only eight stories, most of them no longer than several pages. All but one focus on the extermination of the Jews, presenting different aspects and mechanisms of the Holocaust. The factual material for all of these stories was supplied by Nałkowska’s role as a member of the Chief Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, a body which immediately after the war sought evidence of Nazi crimes. As such, Nałkowska, who had been an established author before the war (and the only female member of the Polish Academy of Literature), took part in numerous on-site verifications, court trials, as well as interrogations – this gave her access to a large amount of forensic material.
But rather than describing the diverse and wide range of Nazi crimes, Nałkowska chose to focus on specific events and stories which she had heard from witnesses, be it about the production of soap from men’s bodies at Gdańsk’s Anatomical Institute (‘Dr Spanner’), the story of a Jewish woman who survived Majdanek (‘Dvoyre Zielona’), or the man who was forced to assist in the death of his whole family at the extermination camp in Chełmno (‘Man Is Strong’).
Told in a matter-of-fact laconic style, and stripped of any redundant pieces of information, these documentary tales also seemingly lack any apparent ‘commentary’. In fact, their meaning and strength often lies in the way they retell the survivors’ stories – emphasising the ellipses and omissions in the narratives of their protagonists, thus pointing to the incommunicable suffering and bestiality that lie beyond the scope of human understanding.
Apart from describing the atrocities of Nazi German crimes in Poland, the book’s importance also lied in how it presented some darker aspects of Polish-Jewish relations, like the indifference of Polish witnesses to the suffering of the Jews (‘Cemetery Woman’) or even their potential complicity (‘By the Railway Track’). These issues raised some controversies in the 1940s, but until recently they were largely outside the focus of readers and critics.
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2. ‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen’ by Tadeusz Borowski (1947)
Borowski is sometimes compared to Primo Levi. Like him, he was a prisoner of Auschwitz, and the author of short stories considered among the most poignant testimonies of the reality of the extermination camp. Also just like Levi, Borowski committed suicide (only much earlier, in 1951).
Borowski was arrested and deported to the camp in 1943 as a Polish political prisoner. During the two years he spent in Auschwitz, Borowski was assigned to work various units around the camp, including as an orderly in the sanitary unit. This means that he was observing life in the camp (including the Birkenau extermination camp) from the closest possible distance, as if from the very heart of the catastrophe.
Some of his most famous stories, like ‘Auschwitz, Our Home’ or ‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen’ contain near-documentary narratives of the most terrifying episodes in the procedure of mass murder, like the selection procedure on the train ramp in Birkenau.
Part of Borowski’s literary strategy was to write about the reality of the camp life as if it was something neutral or self-evident, something which no longer involved any emotions. This was, as he claimed, a psychological necessity and the only possible human reaction for those who tried and succeeded in surviving.
This ‘behavioral’ perspective, which refrained from any psychological explanations and moral judgements, was met with strong critique upon the publication of the book. Borowski was accused of cynicism and a lack of moral compass.
However, this inferred cynicism (the feeling of which must have been enhanced by Borowski’s use of irony, grotesque and parody) was part of his literary technique. Borowski was trying to represent the hellish reality of the camp from the perspective of someone who has lived through it and whose mind and personality were affected by it, reduced to the very will to survive – something he referred to as a ‘lager personality’ (‘lager’ here being another word for a concentration camp). This, according to Borowski, was the only fair perspective.
When read today, Borowski’s work still feels like one of the most powerful first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, even if it is clear that what he is most interested in is the life and poisonous relationships between prisoners. In fact, Auschwitz for Borowski is first and foremost a huge labour camp where people (not necessarily Jews) are used until their very last drop of strength and then annihilated.
Perhaps more importantly for Borowski, the totalitarian principles introduced by Nazi politics and best embodied in the ruthless camp rules did not end with the war’s end. As other short stories such as ‘Homeland’ show, he saw the entirety of civilisation, including everyday social life, as fundamentally blemished by the Holocaust after the war.
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3. ‘Black Torrent’ by Leopold Buczkowski (written in 1947, published in 1954)
Whereas Nałkowska and Borowski concentrated on aspects that came to be associated with the mass extermination in the death factories of the camps, Leopold Buczkowski chose to portray what only later came to be known as the margins of the Holocaust. He focussed on the fate of those Jews who somehow avoided deportation to the concentration camps, and were trying to survive out in the countryside, where they were the object of Judenjagd, namely German hunts for Jews.
The experience of these Jewish refugees, hiding in the forests of Buczkowski’s native Volhynia (today in Ukraine), some of whom joined anti-fascist guerilla units, is the topic of Buczkowski’s novel Black Torrent. The book is somewhat notorious for its difficult, fragmented and amorphous form, which, at least on the first reading, makes it hard to reconstruct even the most basic plot lines. Its elaborate artistic effects lie more in how it succeeds in conveying the hectic and chaotic reality of hiding in forests, mostly at night. It is as if the form and style of the book aims to approach the qualities of this hectic life. As if the whole thing were just some terrible feverish dream…
Buczkowski’s novel (which wasn’t published until 1954) is also important in that it defies the popular stereotype of Jews as passive victims in the face of destruction. Black Torrent shows them in an active struggle despite a much more powerful and ruthless enemy.
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4. ‘The Jewish War’ by Henryk Grynberg (1965)
Born in 1936, Grynberg was a child when the war broke out. His early wartime experiences became the material for his first novel The Jewish War (first published in English as Child of the Shadows). Within its pages, Grynberg describes a life of hiding in a hostile environment: first with his parents in the countryside and woodlands of his native Dobre (in Mazovia) and then, after assuming a false identity, with his mother on the so-called Aryan side. Suffice to say that from his immediate family and numerous relatives, only he and his mother survived.
Told in a laconic style, and mixing the perspective of a child with the knowledge of his parents he could only glean later, The Jewish War, along with its sequel The Victory, became an important literary document of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is also the main theme of Grynberg’s other books, which for the most part were written after he had emigrated to the United States in 1967. In these (like Drohobycz, Drohobycz or Refugees), Grynberg told stories of other survivors, which as he once said, have also become part of his story. As the writer claims, he writes only ‘tales that are authentic and ever more documentary’:
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When I was younger, I was more inclined to fictionalise [...] I wanted to be first and foremost a novelist, now I wish to be more of a chronicler.
This disposition for documentary writing (chronicling events) has certainly been one of the most effective ways of writing about the Holocaust.
5. ‘Bread for the Departed’ by Bohdan Wojdowski (1971)
Formed in 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was the biggest ghetto organised by the Germans during World War II. At its peak, it was comprised of some 450,000 people living in extreme conditions, suffering from diseases, many starving. Published originally in 1971, Bogdan Wojdowski’s novel Bread for the Departed spans across almost the whole period of the existence of the ghetto until the so-called Grosse Aktion in the summer of 1942, when most of its inhabitants were sent to the gas chambers of Treblinka.
The title of the novel’s use of ‘bread’ refers to the hunger that was one of the most prevalent experiences of ghetto life. Throughout its existence, the ghetto’s population largely relied on Jewish children smuggling food inside. Born in 1930, Wojdowski had been one of these children.
His 500-page novel is difficult to define: integrating different genres and modes of writing, it has no easily delineated plot, and is rather a sequence of scenes (many quite shocking in their drastic depiction of brutality) and dialogues. All of this adds up to create a vast biographical portrayal of people and whole social classes living in the ghetto, a mosaic made up of a multitude of different Jewish lives.
One of the characteristic features of Wojdowski’s novel is its usage of different languages and jargons spoken by its varied characters: from Hebrew and Yiddish, to German and criminal slang, to the language of children. As such, Bread for the Departed may also be one of the best aural representations of not only the ghetto, but once-thriving Jewish Warsaw.
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6. ‘Shielding the Flame’ by Hanna Krall (1977)
Published for the first time in a magazine and a year later as a book, Shielding the Flame is a literary reportage based on Krall’s numerous conversations with Marek Edelman (1919-2009), the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
At the time of its publication, Edelman was a virtually anonymous, though successful, cardiologist living in Łódź. Krall’s reportage changed that (making him one of the most respected authorities in Polish public discourse), also changing the popular image of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Edelman’s perspective was deeply anti-heroic and un-martyrological, emphasising the importance of civic values, like love and human decency, even in the face of hopeless facts. He insistently shunned away from big words and rhetoric.
Krall’s style did raise some objections though. Upon its publication in English, the book was compared to New Journalism due to that genre’s emphasis on ‘truth over facts’. Indeed, Krall’s writing may at first come up as difficult – it is not an interview or a narrative which sets the record straight. The narrative combines different time planes, the past getting mixed with the present, perhaps in keeping with one memorable sentence uttered by Edelman: ‘We do not write history. We write about remembering.’
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Krall’s reportage, along with her later books – many of which dealt with the Holocaust and survivor stories – wielded a powerful influence on Polish non-fiction, helping to establish a sense of moral obligation. It is an influence that continues.
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7. ‘Scorched’ by Irit Amiel (1999)
The last in this selection, a work by Irit Amiel, is also the latest in terms of chronology. Amiel, who was born in 1931 as Irena Librowicz, debuted as a writer in her sixties. After surviving the ghetto in Częstochowa, she emigrated to Israel in 1948 where she has lived ever since. Scorched, her debut collection of short stories, was written in Polish and published in 1999.
Amiel has been described as a writer of one experience – that of the Holocaust. In this, her writing bears much resemblance to the work of Ida Fink, another Israeli author writing in Polish.
Written some 50 years after the Shoah, Amiel's work concentrates on the Holocaust’s survivors, most of them living today in Israel. These low-key and restrained short stories show that one doesn’t really ‘survive’ the Holocaust, as the experience is always present with those who have survived, accompanying them until the very end.
According to critic and author Michał Głowiński, the important ‘novelty’ brought by Amiel to Holocaust literature is in her showing how the Shoah continues to define the lives of its survivors even many years later: how it affects their behaviour and way of thinking and influences their daily life. And how it can actually destroy its victims many decades later.
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The protagonists [of these stories] are scorched by the crime perpetrated on them directly, on those close to them, as well as on the community they felt part of and with which they identified with. This scorching cannot be removed using any means, it is unerasable.
Michał Głowiński, postword from 'Scorched'
As Głowiński predicted, the metaphor and concept behind the ‘scorched’ people proved quite persistent – it has since become a de facto technical term to refer to the existential situation of those who, despite surviving the Shoah, are irrevocably affected by it.
The work of Amiel, as Henryk Grynberg once said (discussing Amiel’s second collection of short stories), serves as the ultimate proof that not everything about the Shoah had been said and written, as ‘every sentence in this collection proves that this abyss knows no bottom’.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Jan 2020