Inherited Nightmares. On Mikołaj Grynberg’s Oskarzam Auschwitz (Z bieżącego pamiętnika) (I accuse Auschwitz: from a current notebook)

Henryk Grynberg

Mikołaj Grynberg, a whole generation my junior, is not  related to me, but we met during the filming of Miejsce urodzenia (Birthplace—the film about my discovery of my father’s grave), during which he took still photographs. These later appeared on the film’s posters, cassettes and even on the back cover of my book Dziedzictwo (Inheritance, Anek, London 1993), which is made up of dialogues recorded on and off camera. His collection Oskarżam Auschwitz. Opowieści rodzinne (I Accuse Auschwitz: Family Stories, Wydawnictwo Czarne 2014) also consists solely of dialogues with short introductions. Both the writer and his interlocutors are the descendants of people who  ‘were hunted animals’, ‘became permanently damaged’,  ‘saw the worst things in the world’ and  ‘thought they did not deserve to be happy’.  ‘We pretended to be normal’, ‘we looked like a normal family’, but ‘nothing was really as it seemed’ – they confess. They ask rhetorically, ‘Can a man who had seen the murder of his five-year-old son, be normal?’ and conclude that ‘one cannot be liberated from the Holocaust’; ‘people think that liberation is happiness... but liberation is also the moment when you realize you are alone and your world no longer exists… and yet you continue to live’.  This conclusion is not new: literarily the same is said by the survivors in my ‘Hungarian Sketch’ and ‘Blue-Eyed Maria (see Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories, Penguin Books 2002).

A survivors’ nightmare: ‘I am in a gas chamber, I fall asleep, and I when wake up everybody else is dead.’ Their descendants in Mikołaj Grynberg’s book speak about the living nightmares of post-Holocaust families, in particular those in mixed marriages. ‘My parents had no friends… nobody came to see us and we did not go to see anybody.’ ‘I faced empty spaces, on both sides: on the Jewish side where there was nobody, and on the Polish side where I was not accepted.’ Isolated, uprooted, in a cultural vacuum ‘we sat, just two of us, at the Christmas-Eve supper.’ Even more nightmarish were marriages where one partner - usually the wife - was hiding her true identity: ‘Mother, after the war, was in a post-traumatic state from which she never recovered.’ ‘She knew there was a terrible punishment for being a Jew.  ‘She lived her entire life not being herself.’ ‘As an elderly woman, she took a trip to Israel and stayed there for a year and a half… that was the only time after war when she was not afraid.orst of all were marriages with antisemites - for ‘you can be an antisemite and have a Jewish wife.’ A classic example was the communist party leader, Władysław Gomulka, the key figure of the 1968 antisemitic campaign. ‘In 1968 my mother’s world became desolated once again.’ Sometimes the antisemite did not even know he was married to a Jewish woman and ‘to the end of his life, she played a non-Jewish wife’.”  

The ‘second generation’ shares some common characteristics with the actual children of the Holocaust. ‘You have nobody to talk to, because of the surrounding emptiness… the inherited desolation.’‘I carry in myself an ingrained mistrust, something that prevents me from trusting anybody fully … that makes me think what I see is not what it appears to be.’  ‘I have learned to laugh, but not from joy.’ ‘I laugh like anybody else, but I  avoid truly close relationships.’ A specific trait of the second generation is a failure to understand basic family relations: ‘What are “grandparents”, where do they come from?’ In an Australian kindergarten, a teacher alerted an immigrant Jewish mother that her child seemed retarded and did not know such basic words, as grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt or cousin (see Ruth Wajnryb, The Silence: How Tragedy Shapes Talk, Sydney 2001). ‘I very much missed knowledge about the preceding generations.’ ‘I would like at least once cuddle up with my grandmas.’  Hence, the persistent, sometimes obsessive search for roots. A psychologist by education, Mikołaj Grynberg notes and emphasizes the psychological disorders of this second generation, contrary to the views of sceptics who refuse to believe that the children of survivors suffer ‘as if they themselves survived the Holocaust’ and who claim that this  ‘persistent search for a collective Holocaust trauma’ is related to their own personal psychological problems (see Zygmunt Bauman ‘Hereditary Victimhood: The Holocaust’s Life as a Ghost’, Tikkun13/1998 and ‘Widmo Zagłady’, Midrasz 9/1999). Admittedly, not all the second generation experiences presented in Mikolaj Grynberg’s book are negative. Asked how it is to be brought up by survivors, a female interviewee says, ‘It is a privilege and responsibility… I had the best parents in the world... I protected them so that nobody would harm them again.’  

A strange revival and grimaces towards Israel

Some conversations reveal the oddities of the  ‘revival’ of Jewish life in Poland today. ‘Do you have a mezuzah on your door?’ ‘And you?’ ‘I did, but not anymore’. An Orthodox teenager eats exclusively from kosher pots and plates, but puts on his yarmulke  only ‘just before entering’ his Jewish school. The Jewish Socio-Cultural Society (TSKŻ) in Częstochowa is afraid of its own sign-board: ‘Since 1968, we have not displayed it.’ What happened in 1968? ‘They rushed in, tore the books and broke the gramophone records, even the portrait of [I. L.] Peretz was destroyed…’ In 1938 they destroyed Jewish shops, in 1968 the remnants of Jewish culture and what is the situation today? ‘Now these  very nationalist Polish youths have appeared and we get all sorts of anonymous messages.’ Anonymous messages are not new either: they repeat the nightmare of  1968. This  may be useful information for rationalists who have always looked for economic grounds of antisemitism. ‘Our presence in that country has come to an end and there is no point to pretend this isn’t the case’, says a descendent born in America. Another generalizes that all Europeans ‘have something on their conscience’. And since nobody likes a bad conscience, there is no need for economic or even political reasons for antisemitism to persist. ‘What connects us with this place is the pain we inherited from our parents.’ This statement by still another interviewee sounds like a response to the frequent complaints that participants of the  ‘March of the Living’ do not  pay attention to the beauty of Polish landscape – a view shared by the book’s  author who lives in Poland and defends his ‘reasons of state’ almost as I did half a century ago, even as late as April 1967, half year before my escape to America.

The book does not lack some characteristic grimaces toward Israel. ‘I learned there how to be a good Zionist. When I came back, I was a definite Rightist’ (p. 112) – says a protagonist in a typical expression of inherited communist demagogy that depicted the only Middle East democracy as an ugly right-wing state and Arab fascism as  an embodiment of lovely leftism. ‘Israel is so strong that it will survive everybody’s hatred, but this will not push it on the proper (sic) path’ (p. 164) – complains a well-to-do New York leftist. The author, too, has his reservations: ‘To spend some time there – yes, but remain there – no. Besides, I do not identify with the country’s policies. I understand and forgive a good deal... Perhaps someday...’ (p. 174). An intriguing moral superiority indeed (‘I forgive’) combined with a glancing shot (‘perhaps someday’), which  recalls those Jewish communists who all their lives barked at Israel, but ran under its little wings when they were kicked out by their comrades. Israel is an asylum, but not necessarily a panacea for inherited pains: ‘This year I could not take it anymore… and so I went to France and looked at the blue sky’ (p. 176). There is no explanation of which ‘this year’ was, but in 2014 seven thousand Jews ran from the ‘blue sky’ of France to the still bluer sky of Israel.

Small errors and a couple of major mistakes

The title I Accuse Auschwitz is not only belated but also inappropriate, because the book’s main theme is not Auschwitz but inherited emptiness. Its subtitle, ‘Family Tales’, is more accurate and quite closely related to my Skecze rodzinne (Family sketches, Warsaw 1990). The recorded and transcribed dialogues are lively, brilliant, and often revealing, but of even higher literary value is  the monologue whose protagonist insists he will tell his story rather than converse, which results in a first-person narrative not unlike those of my Family Sketches or Drohobycz, Drohobych and Other Tales.  The author admits the he has exercised selection in deciding which dialogues to include. They are intelligent, painful and very convincing, but they definitely do not represent all, or perhaps even most of the residual post-Holocaust families. My mother who survived on the ‘Aryan’ side and my stepfather who survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Mauthausen enjoyed whatever they managed to acquire in Poland, Israel and the United States. In all three countries they had numerous friends for whom they threw generous parties and they were often themselves invited to similar events. In Łódź, where they lived from 1945 to 1957, they went to every dance at the Jewish Club, which was always full on such occasions.  And this was the basic difference: in Łódź the Holocaust survivors did not cease to be Jews, as they did in Warsaw where almost all the families selected by Mikołaj Grynberg lived and suffered - or still live and suffer - including his own, and where a ‘familial fear’ (depicted in  a few other Polish-Jewish books on this subject) was indeed rife. Was Warsaw a more dangerous place? On the contrary. Were the Warsaw Jews more fearful? Yes, because Warsaw, like other capital cities, is prone to the ‘natural fear’ that one may not make a successful career, that one may lose one’s position and social status. In Washington this capital disease is called ‘bureaucratic fear’. In Warsaw, due to local specifics, the symptoms were much more acute, especially when one had a ‘non-Aryan wife’, who initially was quite helpful in advancing one’s career, but with time became an obstacle. Warsaw Jews -who tried to shed their true identity for familial career and social status –paid a high price because of this bureaucratic fear. This is not to justify the antisemitic pressure, but it was a situation which they chose themselves..

The book contains some minor errors that betray a lack of familiarity with the subject matter: it is not ‘grunner (p. 28) or ‘gruner (p. 218), but ‘greener’ (in Polish transcription ‘griner’) and it meant in Yiddish a new inexperienced immigrant, not a ‘żółtodziób’ (Polish for callow youth); it is not ‘kisz mi tuches’ (p. 31), but kish mir in tuches (Yiddish); Sienkiewicz the novelist was not ‘a terrible antisemite’ (p. 53), even though he did describe the Jews in some condescending terms of the time; OSE, the French-Jewish charity was created at the beginning of the twentieth, not at the beginning of the nineteenth century (p. 138); ‘I wanted to have my own money… for coke or soda’ (p. 169) does not mean money ‘for coke and club soda’ (‘woda sodowa’ p. 169); in Hebrew, it is not ‘mazel tov’ (p. 170), but ‘mazal tov’;  the Yiddish word ‘gezyntehayt cannot be spelled gezyntechajt (p. 253) because it contains an open ‘h’ sound. And in neither Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew or even English, one can say, ‘they hid in the roof (‘ukryli się... w dachu’, p. 20).

There are also a few serious mistakes. It is not true that ‘six million people were gassed’ (p. 143) – at least one half of that number were murdered by other means, and it is high time that people were aware of this.  The ‘Holocaust industry’ is not an ‘“industry” profiting from Holocaust stories’ (‘“przemysł” czerpiący zyski z opowieści o Holokauście’ (p. 298), but a slander, and it does not suffice to put the word ‘industry’ in quotation marks. Seriously mistaken is also the concluding point in the introduction, whose author, Anka Grupińska, after quoting the tragic case of a gentile Polish family which suffered heavy losses in Buchenwald and Mauthausen which lead subsequently to two suicides asks rhetorically: ‘Are these really different worlds? Does suffering not grow out of a common ground? Is the legacy of the Shoah not our common Jewish and non-Jewish, human legacy of an inhuman time?’ The answers are quite simple: a) Yes, these are ‘different worlds’; b) Suffering does not always grow out of a ‘common ground’, and c) the nightmare of inherited emptiness is not ‘a common human legacy’. The way of thinking underlying these three questions should be seen as a belated attempt at equating the exception with the rule and as a diluting universalization, strikingly contradicting nearly everything that is painfully spoken out and wept out in the conversations which follow.