(London and Portland, Ore.: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004) pp. xii+270.
In the summer of 1942 a certain famous magician appeared on one of the streets of the ghetto
Under the open sky, in the street
A famous magician set up his tent
At its entrance, a mysterious sign
Symbol of a great secret.
The mocking of the crowd subsided…
The great magician, clad in a turban,
Looked into the fire, which went out
And raised his hands like a shaman.
The session began: juggling
With plates and burning wheels.
A heavy table, in the hands of the master,
Nimbly whirled like a dancer.
And then the swallowing of fire
And of thin flashing swords.
In the darkness the master seemed to grow pale
Only to flare up again like a torch.
Then his assistant plunged
a shining sabre Into his soft body
The magician, pierced right through,
Smiled and bowed gracefully.
Finally, he carefully placed his top hat
Down on a table He lifted it—
and a bird flew up
Speeding into the distance.
It shot up, as if with the sparks of a rocket.
Like a missile it passed high over the wall
To remain, above the clouds,
A shining, barely perceptible sign.
Long did the magician follow the bird and bid it farewell
He had tears in his eyes and whirring in his head
Finally he looked at the crowd
And the crowd, its eyes fixed on the heavens, wept.—
This beautifully written and carefully crafted memoir gives an unusual and striking picture of Jewish life in Warsaw before and during World War II. The first part of the book, which takes the form of a series of interviews with the Polish theatre critic Hanna Baltyn, outlines the experiences of the author and his parents under the German occupation. The second is a finely chiselled account of their life and that of their circle before the war. This circle was that of the minority of acculturated and Polonized Jews, well integrated into Warsaw society. It is a milieu which Antoni Marionowicz (the name he assumed when he fled from the ghetto with his mother in the summer of 1942—his original name was Kazimierz Jerzy Berman and throughout his life he was known as Kazio, a nickname for Kazimierz) was well placed to describe. His paternal grandfather was a successful textile manufacturer who had converted to Protestantism and his father was a prosperous businessman who lived a comfortable life before the war with an apartment on Swietokrzyska Street in the centre of Warsaw and a villa in the summer resort of Konstancim, outside the Polish capital. His mother (never fully accepted by his father’s family) came from Dynaburg in Latvia. They associated largely with acculturated Jews like themselves and were either related to or connected with many of those in Warsaw’s Jewish elite.
Marionowicz is well aware of the complexities of his background, which is perhaps the main reason why he began describing his pre-war and wartime experiences only so late in his life (The Polish edition of this book, Zycie surowo wzbronione, was published in 1995). Baltyn’s questioning also brings this out:
Many people are unaware that you are a Jew. Neither your surname nor your appearance point to that. You weren’t maligned in the press, you didn’t leave after 1968. Tell me why you want to talk about all that. What drives you to do so?
If I couldn’t tell everything about myself today, I wouldn’t know why I had survived that war. Someone might think that I was ashamed of my roots, and that would be to misjudge me. I come from a Jewish family and I think that not a single drop of Aryan blood flows through my veins…At the same time I’ve never been a Jew in the religious sense…And I consider myself a Christian because Christian ethics speak to me more strongly than any other ideology…
The fact that I’m a Pole, on the other hand isn’t out of choice, and I don’t necessarily like it. I’m a Pole because I am. This land is my land, this language my language. My relationship with Poland is like the relationship one has with one’s family. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I can hardly stand it, but I don’t think that anyone, regardless of position or title, has the right to teach me patriotism.
As this quotation suggests, like many people who were both Poles and Jews, Marionowicz is acutely conscious of the strength of antisemitism in Poland and the way it poisoned the atmosphere in the interwar period. In a striking vignette, he describes Antoni S., the gardener at his father’s Konstancin villa, who was a trusted employee and who, with his wife lunched every Sunday with Marionowicz’s family. At the same time, Antoni was a devoted reader of Maly Dziennik, an antisemitic broadsheet whose managing editor was Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. When the Nazi invasion began, Antoni S. came out a vicious antisemite and Nazi collaborator; after the war, when the Nazi, Schulz, who had lived in the villa during the occupation fled, Antoni appropriated all the family’s property.
The main reason behind the Berman family’s move to the ghetto in 1940 was, as Marianowicz later put it, ‘because conditions there were better for us’. He explains why so many Jews were taken in by the Hotel Polski scheme, in which the Germans offered safe passage out of Poland for those willing to pay a large sum, only to despatch them to their deaths in Auschwitz. In response to Hanna Baltyn’s question, ‘What do you think finally persuaded some very experienced people to take such a huge risk’, he responds:
The hopelessness of that half-life in hiding, a loss of faith in survival, fear each time a door squeaked or something rustled. Have you ever been really afraid?
At the same time, he gives a nuanced picture of the attitude of Polish society toward the Holocaust and shows how, particularly in the small town of Wolomin, near Warsaw, there were many people either willing to aid Jews or to close their eyes to the fact that others were doing so. This was also true, as he indicates, for the German occupiers.
Marianowicz sums up the average Polish response to the mass murder of the Jews in an interchange with Baltyn over the distribution of blood-stained clothing by the Germans to the workers of Wolomin. These items clearly had been obtained from murdered Jews. When asked, ‘Did the workers who had been given these things by their German employers realize to whom the clothes belonged? Did the red stains draw comments?’ he replied:
Of course. It was talked about, but with no emotion or interest. The fact that the clothes had belonged to Jews evoked neither commiseration for the former owners, nor joy that they had fallen victim to the Reich. The attitude to the clothes was purely utilitarian, the comments were exclusively about their usefulness.
Didn’t that enrage you?
I hold no ill will to those who made use of the Jewish clothes. One might say, like the poet, that the people of Warsaw like those of Rome and also of Wolomin, ‘trade, play, make love, as they pass by the heaps of martyrs’ (Czeslaw Milosz)—often in the clothes of those who fell victim to genocide.
Marionowicz was very much influenced by Antoni Slonimski, a writer with a distinguished Jewish lineage who had been baptised by his socialist father as an infant, but who always regarded himself as a ‘Jew of antisemitic origins’. Like Slonimski, who was married to his aunt, Marionowicz believed that philosemitism was not significantly preferable to antisemitism. What was needed was ‘anti-antisemitism’ and the best way to deal with anti-Jewish prejudice is by mocking its stupidity, a view also shared by another Polish-Jewish writer, Julian Tuwim. In his Wyciag na szklana gore: Dziennik roku przestepnego 2000 (Climbing a Glass Mountain: Diary of the Leap Year [or Criminal Year] 2000; Warsaw, 2002), he describes a reception for Mayor Koch of New York. Asked by the mayor, ‘How is it that after the massive emigration of Jews from Poland in 1968, there is still antisemitism in that country?’, he responded, ‘Simple! The antisemites didn’t emigrate!’
As part of the Jewish elite, which lived in the ghetto on Chlodna Street, Marianowicz is well placed to describe the world of those around the chairman of the Jewish Council, Adam Czerniakow. This he does with great subtlety and empathy—he provides the best account of those who thought that they were compelled by impossible circumstances to try to mitigate the worst effects of German rule. Very few of these people, and of the author’s own family, were to survive the war; some of them, as the author points out bitterly, including the eminent neurologist Wladyslaw Sterling and his wife or the historian Marceli Handelsman, were murdered by ‘native fascists’ in the last stage of the war. Living on the Aryan side, in the town of Wolomin after fleeing from the ghetto, he provides a valuable picture of another side of the German occupation—the casual brutalization and widespread corruption that it created. Only someone from his background could describe so effectively two such difference milieus. One striking feature of his description of Polish society under the occupation, a feature it shared with Jewish society in the ghettos, was its obsession with mystical predictions of a German catastrophe. As Marionowicz observes:
During the Occupation, everybody was mystically inclined to a greater or lesser extent. They believed in signs, omens, magic numbers. Some people were fascinated by prophecies…The most popular were: St. John’s Apocalypse; the prophecies of Daniel; the prophecy of the Pyramids, and, of course, Nostradamus. Endless copies of these texts circulated.
The most tragic episode in the book is one which the author is not able to share with Hanna Baltyn and which he only recounts toward the end of the second half of the memoir. His father found the humiliation and forced inactivity of the ghetto extremely difficult to bear. The last straw for him was when Kazio, who inadvertently had not raised his hat to a young German officer (as all Jews were required to) was beaten up and came home with blood streaming from his head. He encountered his father on the stairs of their apartment building, where many social encounters occurred. As Marianowicz continues:
At the moment I appeared on the stairs, Father was standing with a few neighbours discussing the Sienna Street Affair [when a number of Jews had been shot ]. Silence descended. In a voice choked with tears, I blurted out what had happened. Then my father looked strangely at me, and in a very quiet voice, as though talking to himself, said, ‘I’m not going to survive this.’
Although only fifty-four, his heart was already weakened and he died of a heart attack the same night.
Marionowicz had a successful literary career in post-war Poland. He began writing in the ghetto, producing cabaret sketches and poems. One of them, ‘The Bird’, which is reproduced at the beginning of this introduction, was reprinted in Michal Borwicz’s post-war collection of ghetto literature, Piesn ujdzie calo; Antologia wierszy o Zydach pod okupacja niemiecka (The Song Survives: An Anthology of Poems about the Jews under German Occupation; Warsaw, 1947). Borwicz wrote that he had been unable to ascertain the identity of the author.
From 1946 to 1948 Marianowicz was the correspondent of the Polish Press Agency and Polish press attaché in Brussels, and between 1949 and 1955 the deputy editor of the satirical magazine Szpilki, for which he continued to work throughout his life. He also wrote texts for cabarets, including the Syrena Theatre and the radio cabaret ‘Eterek’(Little Ether). In the 1960s, he wrote feuilletons for Kurier Polski and translated many children’s books into Polish, including Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland. This latter work, which he adored, he translated first during the Occupation, but the version was lost and he was forced to reconstruct it after the war so that it appeared for the first time in 1949. He was a writer and collector of limericks and translated the books of a number of musicals, including Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof, which enjoyed great success in the 1990s after the collapse of communism. He was an active member of the Polish Writers’ Union (Zwiazku Literatów Polskich) and, after its dissolution in 1981 by the government, in the Polish Writers’ Association (Stowarzyszeniu Pisarzy Polskich). From 1996, he was Chairman of the Authors’ Association, ZAiKS.
Among the passages in this memoir that stick most in the mind is the description of pre-war Konstancin. Marianowicz is clearly in love with his memories of this resort (he describes also how it is today a shadow of its former self). He writes, ‘If I never thought seriously about leaving Poland, it’s for sure that a large part of the reason was Konstancin, that odd, unlike-any-other place, where across abandonment and neglect, a beauty looks down on us which can be recaptured only in memory.’ He quotes Antoni Slonimski’s monologue ‘How It Really Happened’, a comic piece whose light touch hides its deeper and more tragic message. Slonimski recounts how Jesus returns to Warsaw to comfort the last Jewish tailor on his deathbed. Jesus vouchsafes him a vision of the afterlife, which turns out to be very like pre-war Konstancin. This is how it reads:
When Rayzeman woke up and I gave him Dr. Walicki’s drops, he felt a little better, and he told me how he wasn’t afraid of dying, and he wasn’t even worried about this eviction order with no right of appeal that he had received, because he had had a very long conversation with the Departing Person, and there was no doubt that the Person would take care of him, and most important of all, he already knew what it was like on the other side of life, in the embrace of darkness.
‘You see, how can I describe it to you, there is something very comforting there, something like Konstancin anno 1912. And he started telling me about some boutonnieres and butterfly nets, and what the smell of the ether was like, and how cold was it, and how the food was just like the kielbasa before the First World War, and the bagels you can’t get anymore, and cold milk, and figs and challah in the evening, and after supper how everyone goes to the train station to wait for the Warsaw train. You hear the engineer, old Charonovich, giving the whistle a long, steady blow, and the train pulls
in, and you look to see who’s coming on it, because all the passengers are our beloved dead. And how when he, Rayzeman, gets there, there on the wooden platform lit with gas lamps, his father will be waiting for him, and N., and all his old friends, they’ll ask him about everything, and talk long into the night, around the oil lamp in his old house, about the movies, the books and jokes that came after they had already passed on.’
‘And later’, he said, ‘I’ll go with them to the station every evening to wait for the travellers from the other side of life. And if someone had many friends and well-wishers in life, then he will have many people there to wait for him and to talk with, but if someone was disliked, he’ll have to stand on the side and envy the others. We’ll all be young again, kissing girls from the Leliwa pension, and holding a girl’s small warm hand in our hand, we’ll walk in the garden after the rain when everything smells, and you can breathe deep and strong, and all the way, like I haven’t been able to for a long time.’
Antoni Marionowicz died in June 2003 at the age of 79. Let us hope that he is now in the heavenly Konstancin and that many people came to greet him at the station.
Selected Works by Antoni Marionowicz
Antologia satyry polskiej 1944-1955 (Anthology of Polish Satire; Warsaw, 1955)
Nieszczesny narzeczony Aurelii (The Unhappy Fiancé of Aurelia [Mark Twain]; Warsaw 1962)
Igranie z ogniem (Playing with Fire; Warsaw, 1964)
Co panstwu dolega? (What is Hurting You?; Warsaw, 1967)
Bawimy sie w rymy (Let’s Play with Rhymes; Warsaw, 1971)
(with Ryszard Marek Gronski) Duchy na dachu: groteski (Spirits on the Roof: Grotesques; Warsaw, 1974)
Urwanie glowy (Commotion, 1976)
No tak, ale . . . wybór satyry amerykanskiej (Well, Yes, But . . . A Collection of American Satire; Warsaw, 1977)
Uwazaj na zakretach (Watch out for the Curves; Warsaw, 1978)
(with J. Sylwin) Przetanczyc cala noc... z dziejów musicale (Dance the Whole Night; Warsaw, 1979)
Noc hiejny (The Night of the Jackal; Warsaw, 1980)
Akademia pana Brzechw: wspomnienia o Janie Brzechwie (The Academy of Mr. Brzechwa: Reminiscences of Jan Brzechwa; Warsaw, 1984)
Za czym pan stoi . . .? (What are You Standing in Front Of?; Warsaw, 1988)
Alicja w krainie czarów (Alice in Wonderland; Warsaw, 1990)
Pchli targ (The Flea Market; Warsaw, 1991)
Muchy Króla Apsika (The Flies of King Apsik; Warsaw, 1991)
Minio: przyjaciele of Januszu Minkiewiczu (Friends about Janusz Minkiewicz; London, 1989)
Pchli targ (The Flea Market; Warsaw, 1991)
Dom pod Królami (The House under the Sign of the Kings; Warsaw, 1993)
Kubus puchatek i wielka nawalnica (Pooh Bear and the Great Storm; Warsaw, 1993)
Pinokio (Pinocchio; Warsaw, 1994)
Riki Tiki Tawi(Rikki-Tikki-Tavi; Warsaw, 1994)
Zycie surowo wzbronione (Life Strictly Forbidden; Warsaw, 1995)
Aryskotraci (The Aristocats; Warsaw, 1995)
Ali baba i czterech rozbójników (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; Warsaw, 1995)
Spadanie z ksiezyca; wybór wierszy (Fallen from the Moon; A Selection of Poetry; Warsaw, 1997)
Usmiech bez kota: Wiersze z krainy fantazji, wlasne i zapozyczone (The Smile without the Cat: Verses from the Land of Fantasy, Both One’s Own and Borrowed; Warsaw, 1998)
Robin Hood (Warsaw, 1997)
Spiaca Królewna (Sleeping Beauty; Warsaw, 1998)
Polska, Zydzi and cyklisci. Dziennik roku przestepnego (Poland, Jews and Bicyclists: Journal of a Criminal Year; Warsaw, 1999).
Rudy lunatyk z Marago—limeryki i rymeliki (A Red-haired Lunatic from Marago—Limericks; Warsaw, 1999)
Pchli targ po remoncie (The Flea Market after Renovation; Warsaw, 2001)
Wyciag na szklana gore: Dziennik roku przestepnego 2000 (Climbing a Glass Mountain: Diary of the Leap Year [or Criminal Year] 2000; Warsaw, 2002)