Zofia Nałkowska’s ‘Medallions’ & The Bomb That Never Went Off
#language & literature
default, Zofia Nałkowska amongst the members of the Committee for the Investigation of Hitlerite Crimes, ca.1949, photo: East News, center, zofia_nalkowska_komisja_en.jpg
A look at one of the most explosive books in modern Polish literature, its history and its reception – which effectively aided in neutralising its radical meaning.
Written immediately after World War II, Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions remains one of the most appalling literary testimonies about the Holocaust. Considered a milestone of Polish literature, as well as its 'last word’ on its subject, it became a staple read for the cultured masses of the new, post-war Polish society, as well as its schools.
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But was it also, as some scholars claim today, a book which was just as much misread as it was read? A book which, under the guise of a monumental masterpiece, hid a whole array of thorny problems, many of which were too painful to be expressed? Was it, as one of the authors of a recent book about Medallions claims, a bomb that never went off?
A long-respected & famed author
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Annual meeting of the Polish Academy of Literature at which a list of people awarded with the Academic Laurel was announced, 1936. Pictured: Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski giving a speech; from left: Wincenty Rzymowski, Tadeusz Zieliński, Wacław Sieroszewski, Tadeusz Żeleński, Zofia Nałkowska and Bolesław Leśmian. Photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
When the war ended, Zofia Nałkowska was just over 60 years of age, and like many, she was trying to come to terms with the emerging reality. The end of WWII left Poland as a vast battlefield of Polish victims and a literal graveyard of much of Europe’s Jewish life – a landscape of devastating and disheartening crisis. One of the most distinguished and acclaimed intellectuals in Interwar Poland, Nałkowska was a moral and social authority, a progressive and a liberal, and the only woman in the Polish Academy of Literature.
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As the author of insightful modernist psychological novels, Nałkowska delved into the reasons behind the outbreak of World War I (Choucas, 1927), and explored the mechanisms of class distinctions and social injustice (Boundary, 1935). She had openly engaged in the struggle for the position of women, as well as the plight of political prisoners in Interwar Poland. And yet none of this had prepared her for the role which she was about to play – and the book she was about to write.
A native of Warsaw, Nałkowska spent most of the war in the Polish capital, with only occasional visits to the countryside. Living in the city whose greater part was turned into the largest ghetto in Europe meant that she could observe the plight of the Jewish population from the closest distance possible. As Nałkowska’s biographer Hanna Kirchner claims, it is very likely that Nałkowska knew of and participated in conspiratorial rescue operations in Warsaw. Thus, her knowledge about the ongoing extermination of the Jews certainly exceeded that of an average Pole. Unfortunately, our knowledge about this aspect of Nałkowska’s wartime activity is limited – as the secret diary in which she recorded all things Jewish was destroyed when the Gestapo came to search Nakowska’s apartment building.
In February 1945, Nałkowska became a member of the Central Committee for the Investigation of Hitlerite Crimes in Poland, an institution whose goal was to establish the truth about the means and scope of Nazi crimes in Poland during the war. Her obligations on the committee took her to various locations, including the places of mass killings, and enabled her to talk to people whom she would not normally have met. Medallions, which was eventually published in late 1946, is to a large extent the result of Nałkowska’s activities as part of the committee – but it also contains many other personal accounts gathered by the author.
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Unlike any book she had written before
Medallions consists of eight short stories, most of them not longer than several pages. The book lacks any intro or afterword, and it starts with an epigraph: ‘People dealt this fate to people’. The phrase has since become part of common wisdom, but also a bone of contention for many of her readers and critics. Renowned for its laconic style and lack of obvious authorial commentary, the novellas or reportages that make up the book (as the general definition is difficult to pinpoint) mostly tell individual stories told to Nałkowska by survivors or witnesses, whether people she knew or strangers that she happened to meet, as well as the author’s own wartime experiences.
The book spans such topics as the infamous case of soap production from human bodies at the Gdańsk Anatomical Institute (‘Professor Spanner’), as well as the account of a Polish survivor of several Nazi labour camps (‘The Hole’) and a Jewish survivor of extermination camps (‘Dwojra Zielona’). One piece tells the story of a Jewish woman who survived Auschwitz by assuming a Polish identity (‘The Visa’), while another presents the last moments of a Jewish woman who escaped from a train to an extermination camp, only to be killed by a local (‘By the Railway Track’). There’s a story about a Jewish man who escorted his whole family to death by gas (‘The Man Is Strong’), and another which gives voice to a Polish woman’s anti-semitic rant in the middle of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto (‘Cemetery Woman’). The last piece, ‘The Adults and Children of Auschwitz’, reads more like a report, a recapitulation of the many ways in which the extermination of Jewish people was carried out during the war.
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The reception of a challenging work…
The text of Medallions was ready in early 1946, but it was published only at the end of that year. The book’s debut saw overall positive reviews. Critics appreciated the author’s ‘artisanship’, even if some of them were also perplexed with the book’s ‘form’. After all, the book was not quite what a Polish reader would have expected when it came to writing about war, camps and other ‘lofty and terrifying national matters’. As Hanna Kirchner argues, ‘in more than one review, one can sense a feeling of disorientation about how one should judge this act of departure from the traditional canon’.
Some critics from Marxist circles, like Kazimierz Brandys, pointed to the absence of authorial commentary which would directly identify the perpetrators as fascists. Brandys claimed that while the author wrote ‘how it was, she refrained from explaining why it was so’. Another hard-line party critic levelled a similar accusation, claiming that Medallions ‘discounted the political essence of fascism’. For one, she could hardly come to terms with the book’s epigraph, which, according to her, expressed only ‘the truth of disoriented perplexion’. Much in the fashion of the time, she argued: ‘Our understanding finds expression in a different formula: Fascism doomed people to this fate’.
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Meanwhile, other critics recognised the ‘absence of commentary’ as essential to Nałkowska’s artistic purpose: ‘Nałkowska abstains from any commentary because she presents everything in a way which is designed to evoke a surge of protest, anger, fright in the reader’.
Amongst the few negative appraisals of the book was that of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński. For him, the book’s ‘intended simplicity becomes unintended simplification’. For Maria Dąbrowska, another maven of Polish literature, ‘the macabre, served with the ice-cold elegance of the inner void, both bores and jars the reader’. Then there were those for whom the book was unacceptable on purely pedagogical grounds. As one critic argued, Nałkowska’s reportage should be available only to a narrow group of specialists; it runs the risk of ‘creating or perpetuating a specific moral atmosphere’ for young readers. ‘The nightmares of the occupation should not poison our life’, this reviewer concluded.
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All in all, however, critics agreed that despite its slim size and lack of traditional literary qualities, they were dealing with a work of monumental importance – one that expressed the reality of the ‘times of contempt’. Most readers seemed to concur that with Medallions, Nałkowska, as if intuitively, had found a way to write about the terrible wartime reality. This was, of course, reality about which one was unsure not only how to write about, but also unsure whether it was possible to write about at all.
Effectively, Medallions quickly established a position of a canonical work of Polish literature, an artistic milestone, and Polish literature’s ‘last word’ on its subject – as well as an obligatory read in schools and amongst all cultured people. Between 1946 and 1990, Medallions went to print 18 times, its firm position and role in the canon seemingly unshakeable. (It has also been reprinted several times since then.).
But, as the authors of a new book about the reception of Medallions, the 2016 Zagłada w Medalionach Zofii Nałkowskiej: Tekst i Konteksty (The Holocaust in Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions: Text and Context) show, there was something that almost all of the readers and critics were missing in their interpretation of this short text. As they argue. immediately with the publication of Medallions, a whole other story began, one of omitting and erasing some of its meanings – a collective process, as one of the scholars calls it, of defusing the bomb hidden in the text of Medallions. That bomb was the Holocaust…
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‘A book about the atrocities of war…’
The authors of this new, revealing book demonstrate how, as early as its first reviews, Medallions was read as a book about anything but the Holocaust. It was labeled variously as a book about the terror of occupation, war atrocities, a difficult humanism, and even destiny and fate. Critics called it ‘the truth about the concentration camps’, or ‘a book about occupation, and Poles saved from prisons and camps’.
Surprisingly, most readers seem to have rarely realised that the vast majority of Nałkowska’s book’s narrators and protagonists were Jewish, and that its main subject was the Shoah. (In fact, amongst the eight stories, only one, ‘The Hole’, can be considered as belonging to non-Jewish Polish martyrology). Many readers also failed to realise that the crimes against humanity which the book so aptly depicted were in fact crimes against Jews. Whenever it was noticed, it was considered a marginal issue, not worthy of deeper reflection. As a result, in the popular imagination, the book has continued to function as an account of Nazi German crimes against humanity or, more specifically, against Polish citizens.
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Covers for different editions of ‘Medallions’, highlighting Polish martyrology. Selection by Wojciech Wilczyk. From the book ‘Zagłada w Medalionach’. Photo: Dagmara Smolna
This might have been in keeping with the overall policy of the Polish communist regime after the war, which considered all German war crimes as essentially crimes against Polish citizens perpetrated by the fascists. As a matter of fact, Nałkowska’s book doesn’t help here much. Oftentimes, it is quite vague in calling out precisely the ethnicity of the victims, even if, as the authors of Zagłada w Medalionach say, this should have been more or less obvious for the Polish reader.
As the editor of the 2016 book, Tomasz Żukowski, shows, this reading was to some extent embedded in the text itself. Through its distanced, cold, and seemingly objectivised perspective, Medallions invited a similarly distanced perspective on the part of the reader, a sort of detached, cold look from afar:
Polish readers were quick to embrace themselves in the role of onlookers, who can watch the events of the war as if it were a statue in a museum. This specific position liberates [one] from a sense of participation, of entanglement in the situations depicted, and consequently, a sense of co-responsibility.
The reader, just as the author of the book, is called to play the role of witness and commentator. Thus, as Żukowski describes it, ‘the untainted face of Nałkowska becomes our face’. ‘The community identifies with her testimony and inscribes itself into the figure of a witness, which is itself constructed by the text of Medallions’, he writes.
Żukowski also shows how, in this process of communal reading, some aspects of Medallions were deliberately silenced and ignored. This was especially the case with the two novellas which deal with the role of Polish ‘witnesses’ (‘The Cemetery Lady’, ‘By the Railway Track’). These could be considered especially harmful to the self-image of the national community – but they happen to be particularly important for understanding the plight of those who perished.
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‘The Cemetery Lady’ portrays the anti-Semitism entrenched in the opinions of many ordinary people, one which was not diminished even in the face of the ongoing murder of Jews – and which may well have contributed to the ultimate fulfillment of this plan. ‘By the Railway Track’ upends the very notion of the neutrality of Polish ‘bystanders’. More than that, it shows that these bystanders could have easily become perpetrators, and that they sometimes did. As Żukowski points out, Nałkowska, much ahead of her time, proves that the seeming inertia or indifference on the part of the surrounding community is in fact a form of ‘action’.
Żukowski goes on to show that, in the history of their reception, these stories did not provoke reflection about the patterns of Polish culture and its related practices. Instead, the readers decided to identify as victims par excellence, choosing to become ‘the epitome of war victims all over the world’. This, as he argues, has effectively, and for many decades, eliminated any questions about Polish people’s complicity, which, as he claims, is inherently present in Nałkowska’s work.
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As another author of Zagłada w Medalionach claims, the text of Medallions also hides other potentially explosive ingredients which go beyond the scope of historical Polish-Jewish relations. In her essay from that same book, Katarzyna Chmielewska shows that ‘the cognitive potential and the horizon of questions outlined in Medallions go far beyond the book’s earlier and contemporary reception’. These, as she argues, were ‘bombs that didn’t go off’. They were neutralised by the operating codes of reading.
Chmielewska shows that Medallions inherently poses problems and opens perspectives which today are crucial for our thinking about the Holocaust. Polish culture at the time, however, did not take up this challenge, Chmielewska says – it did not have the instruments necessary to interpret it. As a result,
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[t]he major questions, new horizons, as well as new assessments appeared [in the Polish discourse] much later; [in fact] they arrived as if from the outside, stamped by [the authority] of the names of renowned thinkers, like Hannah Arendt, Zygmunt Bauman, Giorgio Agamben… Nałkowska remained on the sidelines. She did not become a real source of questions and answers in the Polish public debate.
Chmielewska points specifically to several areas and threads of reflection which she finds latently present in Nałkowska’s text, but which were never truly explored by the readers of Medallions. One of these is the question of the rationality and irrationality of the Holocaust – an aspect of reflection on the Holocaust best exemplified by the work of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. For those philosophers, the Holocaust was a ‘barbarism of the new kind’, if also rooted in the European project of modernity.
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A session of the Auschwitz Committee at the seat of the Court of Appeals in Krakow, 1945, Konisia. Pictured, at table from left: Edward Pęchalski, Zofia Nałkowska, Wincenty Rzymowski. Photo: Institute of National Remembrance
A similar intuition, Chmielewska claims, is at the core of Nałkowska’s thinking in the opening piece, ‘Doctor Spanner’. Nałkowska shows how the participants of the procedure of manufacturing soap from human fat share in a specific kind of knowledge: they seemingly know what’s going on, but at the same time, they are unwilling (or unable) to fully understand the overall moral sense of their activities. They refuse to grasp what they were part of in its entirety, with all of its moral consequences.
Moreover, Nałkowska’s text makes it plain that their relation to knowledge is not defined in any way by their education, social status (the professor's assistant is an educated young man), or nationality (he is a Pole). As Chmielewska points out, the piece ‘showcases a strict separation of practice and reflection, a technological use of the mind, as well as an explicit goal-orientedness’ of the Nazi project.
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Thus, the accused stand in Medallions is filled with not only the Nazi authorities, the machinery of war or outstanding sadists (who are invoked, primarily, in the last story of the book), that is, so to speak, ‘the barbarity” which has little to do with the cultured world of civilisation – but precisely with the civilisation for which the Shoah has become a mirror reflection.
From ‘Zagłada w Medalionach’, trans. MG
This last conclusion is, as Chmielewska notes, admittedly close to the perspective adopted much later by Zygmunt Bauman. In his Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Bauman saw the Shoah as a logical, if twisted consequence of the rational, bureaucratic mechanisms of authority operating in modern society – much more a product of Western civilisation, than an excrescence on its healthy body. Of course, such thought was quite far from the intellectual horizon of Nałkowska herself, but as Chmielewska demonstrates, it is potentially present in the text that Nałkowska wrote – but this was never articulated by her interpreters.
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Chmielewska also shows how in the figure of Doctor Spanner, the reader can clearly recognise an image of the modern society which considers its greatest value ‘the efficient organisation, discipline, subjugation to the law and binding rules’. This is the same society which has placed patriotism, ‘in this specific sense, dedication to the cause and higher goals’, on the upper levels of its hierarchy.
Chmielewska links this subordination (‘a virtue on which civilisation is founded’) with the role of institutions, science, the state and organisations, but first and foremost with the formation of a social personality known as the ‘authoritarian personality’. The latter term is naturally a reference to a concept developed by Erich Fromm and Theodor W. Adorno in the wake of the rising fascism, World War II and the Holocaust.
Similarly, Chmielewska shows that in the process overseen by Spanner, the instrumental reason goes hand in hand with economical thinking. For one, Spanner always had dead bodies stocked for later. Chmielewska proves that Nałkowska, too, had quite a clear understanding of the overall economical aspect of the Holocaust – even if she was seeing it only as part of the German count.
Similarly, Nałkowska’s book could also serve as an argument in a potential discussion about the ‘banality of evil’, a perspective introduced by Hannah Arendt in her book about the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). This theory starkly contrasts the evil inscribed in institutions and mechanisms of modernity with the alleged diabolical or metaphysical nature of Evil. Seen from this angle, Nałkowska’s book, much in the fashion of Arendt (but also of Adorno and Horkheimer), puts on trial the culture itself, depicting Nazi practices as deeply rooted in bourgeois norms and values – and epitomised in the figure of Spanner. Thus, Bildung can be seen as the foundation of industrial killing. ‘But this ascertainment was also not recognised. [...] It was ignored in favour of much more general considerations about war atrocities as well as the bestiality and cruelty of the Germans’, Chmielewska points out.
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‘Warning! Do not touch!’
Chmielewska goes on to show how Nałkowska’s book had also anticipated other later aspects of Holocaust research and reflection. Her examples include the question of the very possibility of expressing the wartime experience (the context which, as she says, became productive in Poland only in the 1990s, with the work of Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas) or the aporiae of documentary writing technique (as opposed to fiction).
She also shows how Medallions could have provoked a reflection on the relationship between the actual lived experience and the cultural background which formats perception (her example being the ‘Cemetery Lady’, whose entrenched ‘opinions’ remain unaltered despite the shock of observing the reality of extermination from the closest possible distance). Obviously, none of these discussions took place in their due time – and when they eventually did, much later, they were inspired by other texts and other authors.
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A question remains as to the reasons why the text of Medallions did not ‘explode’, thus triggering discussions and debates which could have potentially transformed Polish reflections on the Holocaust. Chmielewska seems to suggest that Polish culture lacked both the tools and the willingness to deal with the issues posed by the text – partially because the ultimate stake of these discussions was the self-perception of the Polish majority, a sense of national well-being.
Little wonder then, that ‘Medallions’ found its place on the pedestal of literary criticism with a warning sign: ‘Do not touch – peering closely may cause explosion’.
From ‘Zagłada w Medalionach’, trans. MG
Meanwhile, because of this approach, ‘our knowledge [of the Holocaust] does not accrue, but incessantly sinks into a vacuum. And so the discussion starts anew from the point of departure’, Chmielewska concludes.
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As a result of all these processes, the message of Medallions was narrowed down to a mere humanist banality, a process that can be also observed in regard to the book’s epigraph:
‘Medallions’ was treated as a monument to humanity and higher culture, which emerged victorious from a struggle with the horrible onslaught of barbarity. Paradoxically, the epigraph of ‘Medallions’ came to be understood as an expression of humanism, rather than a questioning of its value.
From ‘Zagłada w Medalionach’, trans. MG
This ‘humanist’ epigraph came to be the subject of perhaps the only fruitful discussion in the history of the book’s reception – one which was delayed, however, by several decades. It started in the mid 1990s with articles by Henryk Grynberg, a Holocaust survivor and an important author of Holocaust literature. On the one hand, Grynberg openly acknowledged the ‘truthfulness’ of Nałkowska’s book: ‘No other Holocaust short stories ring more true, no other account is a better testimony of the truth’. He also recognised the continuing relevance of her approach: ‘She had also found the best as-of-yet way of writing about this subject – without commentary’. But then he added: ‘whenever she tried to add her commentary, she was bound to make errors’.
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For Grynberg, the most jarring example of such flawed authorial commentary, which he also saw as ‘Medallions’ greatest factual error’, can be found in the book’s famed epigraph: ‘People dealt this fate to people’. As mentioned before, this piece of commentary may suggest that the victims of the Nazi crimes were people in large, humanity in general. Grynberg saw this as an unjustified generalisation and a distortion of the historical nature of the Holocaust.
He found the ultimate proof of his point lying bare in the very last sentences of the book. It is here that we read about two children playing in the sand on the premises of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Asked about what they are doing, they say: ‘We are playing at burning Jews’. Grynberg notes that the children are not saying: ‘We are playing at burning people’. This, for him, was the ultimate proof that the actual target of the Nazi genocide – and the real grammatical object of this sentence – was Jews, and not people. Hence, as he claimed, the ‘corrected’ epigraph to Nałkowska’s text should read: ‘People dealt this fate to Jews’.
Nałkowska’s epigraph, with its implied suggestion that the Holocaust was in fact a variant of universal suffering, might offer a partial explanation as to why so many of Polish readers did not recognise the Holocaust as the distinct subject of Medallions. As Żukowski and Aránzazu Calderón Puerta point out in one of the essays in the 2016 book, the conviction that non-Jews suffered just as much as Jews allowed the members of the majority to focus on their own martyrdom:
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By putting themselves in the position of victims, in one line with the victims of the Shoah, the majority dismisses the questions about its own behaviour towards Jews and its meaning – that is, the attitudes which made possible, facilitated or complemented Hitlerite plans of extermination. This sort of inclusion into humanity [...] goes together with turning a deaf ear to and concealing the produced difference. This was the road taken by the Polish reception of the ‘Medallions’.
From ‘Zagłada w Medalionach’, trans. MG
As a result – and such is the conclusion of the scholars – if we were to consider Medallions as a text about the Holocaust, and take its epigraph for its face value, ‘Jews were included into humanity, only to almost immediately disappear as a problem for Polish culture’.
Although Nałkowska’s silent bomb may have ended up diffused due to the different interpretations inherent in people’s personal and societal biases, it remains an extremely powerful work for whoever picks it up. In fact, it can be argued that the book proves it deserves its place in the literary canon by its continued ability to provoke important discussions, something that will no doubt continue for many years to come.
20th century polish literature
polish women writers
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Mar 2020