A testimony to survival

Ruth Franklin is associate literary editor of the New Republic.

Toward the end of Henryk Grynberg's story "I Am From Auschwitz," a woman who survived the Holocaust laments the lack of interest that her children and grandchildren take in her stories of World War II. "Now, there are books, films, monuments," she says. "Now, we don't grate on them, now, we don't bother them, because we're not here anymore."

Are works of art about the Holocaust indeed capable of replacing the actual memories of survivors? This question is a familiar one: The film "Schindler's List," to give just one example, was criticized for its substitution of a more palatable Nazi for the brutes under whom most Jews suffered, since audiences might take Steven Spielberg's version as gospel. Henryk Grynberg, a Holocaust survivor himself, has a unique solution: He strives in his fiction to produce a stringently authentic voice. In "Drohobycz, Drohobycz" (originally published in Poland in 1997), he adheres as closely to real life as a writer of fiction possibly can.

The English version of Grynberg's book bears the subtitle "True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After," and at first glance the "stories" appear to be literal transcriptions of oral testimony: Each bears a dedication to a specific man or woman, who narrates the events of his or her life in the first person. But in a preface to the Polish edition, left out of the English version, Grynberg explained that although the stories are "rooted in conversations with actual people, they are not interviews, and the author is entirely responsible for their content." This is fiction, but fiction with a distinct awareness of its relation to reality.

More monologues than narratives, the extraordinary pieces in Grynberg's book are told in a rambling, conversational style that is astonishingly similar to the way many Holocaust survivors actually speak. These monologues seem to operate on their own terms, paying little heed to literary devices or structure. On closer examination, however, the skill of the author is apparent.

The title story, for instance, appears simply to recount the family saga of one Dr. Leopold Lustig, but Grynberg has subtly shaped it into a group portrait of the Jews of the Galician town of Drohobycz. It begins with a lengthy description of an apartment building built by Lustig's great-grandmother. On the ground floor lived Judge Drozdowski, "whom the Soviets deported to Siberia"; the widow Mrs. Mermelstein; and the Jolleses. Upstairs are Great-Aunt Hanna and her husband, Josek, who have cats, but no children, "because he neglected his gonorrhea"; Great-Aunt Yetka, "the youngest, the prettiest, and vain"; grandmother Pesia, "with my grandfather whose life she was poisoning"; and three aunts. The reason for this almost biblical catalog of ancestors and descendants becomes clear several pages later:

"Josek Sternbach went to Bronica with the handicapped, and Hanna in the first transport to Belzec. Yetka in the second. Mania and Klara were taken to Bronica with everyone from the roof-tiling plant. Rauchfleisch hid Tonia in a suburb of Lwow with his two sisters.... Mrs. Mermelstein went with her children to Belzec. So did the Munzers, the Jolleses, the Josefbergs, as well as the Altbachs. Slowacki Street 17 was a two-story house like most buildings in Drohobycz."

The concluding sentence, an apparent non sequitur, serves as a jarring reminder that of an entire apartment building full of people, only the narrator and his Aunt Tonia have survived the war.

Although each story is narrated by a different person with a distinct voice, this uninflected, almost monotonic style characterizes the entire collection. There are no histrionics here; the most horrific events are narrated without pause even for breath. All but two of the stories are told by women, and Grynberg seems to be especially sensitive to the rhythms of female voices. Although three of the protagonists describe similar experiences as young girls in hiding in Ukraine, the brutal and often contradictory details of each story make it impossible to generalize about their experiences. In "Escape From Boryslaw," the narrator seeks refuge with kind Ukrainians who feed her well, but the girl in the next story is treated miserably by the locals and finds solace only among other Jews hiding in a forest. She comes upon the corpse of a woman with a loaf of bread sticking out of her jacket. "I picked up that bread soaked in blood," she says. "I have never admitted that to anyone until now."

As with the work of writer Tadeusz Borowski, the speakers retain their astonishing brevity even when describing scenes from the camps, giving only the barest outlines of what happened. "Some people describe movingly noble characters," Lustig says of Auschwitz. "I didn't see any like that." He himself takes food from those who are sick, as well as from the dish of an SS dog. The only religious character in the book, Judith of "A Hungarian Sketch," remembers religious services at Auschwitz: "When the Days of Judgment approached, we sat behind the barracks and prayed beneath the open sky, so that God would see us better." Astonishingly, she manages to elude Dr. Josef Mengele during a selection and to sneak into the group destined for work rather than death. "I selected myself," she says proudly. Another woman becomes a believer, but via a very different route: Hidden in a convent for much of the war, she promises God that "I would never be a Jew and that, in exchange, no one would hate me."

While most stories of the Holocaust end with liberation, Grynberg's show that the end of the war did not mean the end of suffering. Many of the characters are the sole survivors of their families. Lustig manages to track down a friend of his mother's, but she refuses to meet him, only sending a message that she "doesn't have good news." Even when the survivors' material situations have improved, their worlds are entirely destroyed, emotionally and morally. One of the women from Ukraine winds up in a Polish children's home, where she and another girl are punished after they are caught stealing apples from a nearby kolkhoz:

" 'You too?' shouted the director, deeply disappointed. 'Why?' 'Because we were hungry.' 'That's no excuse, a lot of people are even more hungry. Do you know what would happen if everybody who was hungry started to steal? What would become of the world?' We didn't know, we thought about it seriously, what more could possibly happen?"

Although many eventually make their way to America or Israel, the war continues to bring them pain. Lustig, obsessed with the fates of the Gestapo officers, is furious that some of them lived for years in freedom before being tried and convicted. The narrator of "I Am From Auschwitz" ritually goes to see Holocaust films at the Smithsonian on weekends "like others go to church or synagogue." She is bitter about her inability to pass along her story to her children and grandchildren. "My son finished university here and got married. He hasn't once asked me how it is that I am alive. He's like a stone. She won't let it be spoken about, particularly in front of the children. He doesn't ask, she doesn't allow it, I don't say anything."

Grynberg's skill at re-creating the voices of these Holocaust survivors is astounding. (Credit is also due to his translator, Alicia Nitecki, who has a sure ear for Polish American speech.) Paradoxically, however, the apparent authenticity of his stories makes one wonder exactly why Grynberg has worked so assiduously to create an impression of pure, unmediated testimony. Virtually every canonical Holocaust text grays the line between fiction and reality in some way: Anne Frank's father deleted her musings on her awakening sexuality and other topics from her famous diary; Elie Wiesel's "Night" is called a novel, but it is based closely on Wiesel's own experiences and is generally read autobiographically. Even the testimonials that seem the most realistically rough -- the interviews with survivors collected at Yale University's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, for instance, which are perhaps the closest real-life analogue to Grynberg's stories -- are inevitably incomplete representations of actual events, since our brains perform a natural form of editing in distilling our memories.

A fascinating example of how this works can be seen in "Words to Outlive Us," a newly translated collection of excerpts from testimonials from the Warsaw Ghetto that were preserved by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. One can hardly imagine anything more authentic than these testimonials, many of whose writers explicitly state that they wish only to leave a record of a story that they may not live to tell. (Nearly half of the 29 writers represented did not survive the war.) The literalism and immediacy of an anonymous woman's description of writing her memoir is typical: "I see no way of surviving. For that reason I've decided to write down what I've experienced. At the moment I am living in an attic. I'm using a turned-over bucket as a table and a small crate as a chair. I'm writing hurriedly with the idea that some day these pages will be found in a liberated Warsaw."

But some of the chroniclers are quite adventurous. Helena Midler, hiding in a bunker on the "Aryan side" of Warsaw, left behind a satiric newsletter called "Bunker Weekly." The first issue included a report on the shelter's epidemic of hemorrhoids, accompanied by a poem; a meal planner for "all our lady readers," in which the menu includes only wheat pancakes and barley soup; and an account of the bunker's pest-control strategies: "Following fierce battles, we have held our position while inflicting great losses on the enemy. Space will not permit us to recount further details from our interview with our military spokesmen." Samuel Puterman writes a dramatic -- and obviously fictionalized -- account of the suicide of Adam Czerniakow, president of the ghetto's Jewish council. "He opened his eyes wide: The phrases and sentences began shooting at him from the pages. 'The Jewish council in Warsaw therefore kindly requests that the authorities undertake to resettle ... ' That damned heart, pounding away. He pressed hard on his tormented heart, pulsing with all the blood that had been spilled ...." Another woman's memoir takes the form of an imagined dialogue between herself and a girlfriend.

The literary quality of the testimonies is highlighted by editor Michal Grynberg's (no relation to Henryk) almost novelistic approach to his text, which he terms a "collective memoir": He has selected brief passages from the testimonials and arranged them by subject matter into long sections. Although this structure makes the book difficult to use for reference purposes, one has at times an almost theatrical sense of the many narrators stepping out individually from the darkness, each telling a piece of his or her story and then stepping back again. At points, the memoirs overlap, with different writers presenting their own versions of the same incident. Even when the details do not exactly match up -- the footnotes occasionally disagree with dates in the text, and the numbers are often inconsistent -- it reminds us that these texts were often written without notes or other materials at hand.

"So what if he writes with more moralizing than facts?" one of the Warsaw Ghetto chroniclers asks of a friend's memoir. In the end, of course, the important thing about these testimonials is not how they are written but that they exist at all. Still, their diverse forms show that literalism is not necessarily a prerequisite for writing about the Holocaust. Henryk Grynberg's own work serves as proof that fiction can speak as powerfully as testimony.


From 'Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories'

The devil's name was Mengele. He came in with an impatient gait and ordered all those who had blue eyes to step forward. We approached with our hands stretched out and he moved his finger over the tops of our palms, as though he were checking the quality of the skin. If the skin appealed to him, he pointed towards the exit....

He came twice a week with a squad of Kapos who held each other by the hand dividing the barracks. Stripped bare, we approached in turn with arms raised high and he looked at our ribs. We had to do this at a pace, eins-zwei-drei, so that he wouldn't waste his valuable time. The ones who looked healthiest went out. The thinnest he grabbed under the chin with his thumb and forefinger -- and with those two fingers threw them into a corner behind the cordon of Kapos. He did this impatiently, as though there were too many of us, as though he were wasting his valuable time because of us ...

So when Mengele grabbed me with his forked fingers and pushed me into the black corner, I didn't even stop but went back behind the hedge of Kapos. He could not have anticipated anything like that. It wouldn't even have crossed his mind. And I didn't get dressed like the others to remain until the next selection. I turned back and, with my arms raised to heaven, moved toward him again. He couldn't have recognized me. Naked, we all looked alike, didn't have faces. It couldn't have occurred to him. I walked past him when he was examining someone else, and went the only way out I had. I made my own selection, I selected myself. He turned his head and looked at me, but the next one was approaching from the front at the pace he'd established, eins-zwei-drei. He couldn't waste his valuable time.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World