Henryk Grynberg was a guest in our class tonight. The class is “Literary Responses to the Holocaust” and was created and is taught by Dr. William-Paul Burch.
What follows are my notes typed during his visit to class. The last question was mine – and his answer is not typed out because I felt it would be impolite to type while he was responding to me personally.
Question: You mention in your essay, Coming to Terms, that language distorts but doesn’t falsify the truth. How could Borowski have avoided the distortion?
Answer: When you are a witness you promise to tell the whole truth. Borowski does part – but makes what he writes universal as if the catastrophe affects all of humankind. It doesn’t distinguish among the victims. Borowski was an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp, not the death camp. There was a third camp of slave labor. Borowski and a group from the concentration camp were given the task to “process” people from the ramp further on, mostly to the death camp. To him it wasn’t that the Jews went to the death camp while others had the chance to live: to him it was all the same. Such a view is possible and perhaps admirable, but the fate of those who arrived at Auschwitz was differentiated according to their ethnicity: The Jews were not to survive, the non-Jews had a chance. Borowski survived, among others. Borowski was liberated by the Americans, but Bortachevsky was released by the Germans before liberation. Political prisoners were not automatically condemned to die – Jews were condemned to die. Only Jewish women with children were automatically exterminated. Many political prisoners and convicts survived. Borowski was one of the first to write, one of the first to witness: we are now wiser, looking back from the difference of decades. Borowski concentrated on the details but ignored the big picture. Borowski’s writing was masterful in describing the details. Grynberg can’t say if Borowski’s writing was fiction.
Question: On page 71 of your short story, “Without a Trace” – what is mean by “if I had only known to light a candle…”
Answer: The candle would have been lighted for the dead, a memorial candle, a yizkor. The character doesn’t know when they were killed. There is no voice for them. (Prof. Burch interjected, “Women cannot say Kaddish.”)
Question: Also from Without a Trace – the three Jews hung in the square as a warning. Was the threat of death no longer effective?
Answer: The hangings were to terrorize the rest of the population. It was meant to curb the possibility of resistance. It was meant not just for the Jews. For every German killed hostages were taken. If they didn’t find the guilty, dozens of innocent people were killed publically. There are memorials on the walls of buildings throughout Warsaw.
Question: Why is the narrator’s name of Without a Trace not known?
Answer: The story is dedicated to Charlene – she was the narrator. The only story not dedicated is The Family Sketch but the dedicatee asked for her name to be withdrawn. She felt her family would be offended by what she said about them. The lack of a name is an attempt at abstraction. Polish is a less abstract language than is English: the ending always indicates male or female. In the story D”D” the name of the village is symbolic of all such villages.
Question: Page 67 of Without a Trace – “I was afraid of people, but afraid to be alone.” Would it have been better to be alone in the forest or surrounded in the ghetto by loved ones?
Answer: I can’t speak to that myself, but in general people preferred to be surrounded by their friends and family members. Some people who escaped the ghettoes actually returned to the ghetto to rejoin their loved ones – or just to be among other Jews. Jews were isolated and alienated from the human family before the Holocaust – treated as a different kind of being. They felt safer in the ghetto – even with the risk of starvation or annihilation. Inside the ghetto you knew who your friends were: Outside the ghetto you could trust no one.
Question: At the end of Without a Trace, the narrator cannot see anything familiar when she returns to her home village. Is this symbolic of post-Holocaust alienation.
Answer: Yes! There’s a book being published now in Germany (ironically) of how traces of holocaust were erased in various places in Europe. The Germans were collecting items to put into a museum in Prague – artifacts of the disappeared. The bystanders preferred to see the traces of the Jews removed. Perhaps it was easier for them psychologically. The post-holocaust regimes (usually communist) were happy to wipe out the traces of the Jewish communities. The new “owners” of Jewish property didn’t want to be reminded that perhaps the property was not obtained legally. This happened also in Paris. Watch the film SARAH’S KEY.
Question: What type of insight do you have that we in our situations might have for us?
Answer: BEWARE! Be aware of things which may be not quite visible but that exist within the society. If circumstances change, these things may emerge. Dangerous powers of darkness may be within the society and within some individuals. I’m not a philosopher or theoretician.
Question: Do you still believe in God?
Answer: Prof. Burch intervenes and passes on the question, but Grynberg didn’t hear it anyway. [It became painfully clear later in the session that Grynberg holds no reverence for the god that destroyed his family. He says in a poem about his little brother (murdered by the Nazis) that he, Grynberg, feels no compulsion to shout “Hosanna! Hosanna!”)
Question: How do you write about unspeakable things?
Answer: I identify with these people so thoroughly that I write in the first person about them. Most narrators (of mine) are women. I often forget if the narrator is speaking or if I am speaking. I look for those things that are common denominators of the fate of this group of people. I was in different circumstances, but I became homeless, I lost members of my immediate family. Her situation [in the story] was more difficult – alone, on her own – and she saved herself by herself at a very early age. I was six and seven years old, and was eight when liberated. My mother and I lived in plain sight because we had no Yiddish accent in our spoken Polish. It was a vulnerable situation – there was always the possibility that the ruse would be discovered. Discovered with false Aryan papers would have meant immediate execution. My mother was as an actress continually on stage. She was 26 years old when we started to hide in plain sight – 28 when we were liberated.
Question: In Without a Trace the narrator’s mother and father simply disappeared. Do they appear in any of your other stories?
Answer: No. She never learned their fate. It remains enigmatic.
Question: What is the most important ideal you can share with us as a writer and actor?
Answer: Writers are story tellers. You always want to have a new story – one that hasn’t been heard before. I select my narrators – I don’t tell everyone’s story. My idea of being a writer – there are all sorts of writers and subjects. My subject chose me. If I don’t tell the story no one else will be able to tell the story the way I do. This is what compels me.
Question: You write fiction from your own experiences: why did you choose fiction rather than another genre.
Answer: I don’t feel that I write fiction. My manner is like writing fiction. If these people didn’t exist, the reality described in my stories would not exist. I am convinced that I am telling documentary stories. If you compare a feature film with a documentary, here is the difference. I’ll discuss this during the lecture. I place myself in the category of non-fiction writers although I employ all the tools of fiction. I attempted to be a fiction writer in the beginning, but reality took over. I can add nothing to it, my imagination doesn’t help. I’d rather stick to the story as it is even if I don’t quite understand what’s going on.
He wrote a poem about his little brother Baruch who was murdered by the Germans, and Prof. Burch read the poem to the class and then I had the opportunity to ask my question.
My Question: You write in your essay, Coming to Terms with Memory, “I never had a chance to develop confidence in human beings. … I became reluctant to get close to anyone and make close friends. Taught in my earliest years to hide my feelings and thoughts, I never learned to reveal them in personal contacts. I had to become a writer.” Has the act of writing enabled you to express those feelings and those thoughts? Is writing, in your view, a sufficient surrogate for the closeness you missed?
Answer: The answer is yes and yes. It is probably in my situation the only way to express my true feelings. It helps me very much. As a matter of fact I make many friends this way. I have many friends whom I don’t see, I don’t touch. With the internet now I don’t even hear them, but they are there. I am quite happy doing what I am doing. Of course it takes some suffering and when I write these stories… whenever you read a story and you feel like crying, I am crying at that moment when I’m writing it. I have to cry when I write some of these stories. But the suffering is rewarded. I know that I pass on this story to someone who has empathy. I have connected with the rest of humanity in this way. Or that I have help this connection process between people.