‘We are not the same’, ‘We are not relations’: The Traps of Moral Relativism in Literary Narratives of Polish-Jewish Relations; The Case of Charles T. Powers’ In the Memory of the Forest
Imagine the likelihood of a narrative reconciling Polish and Jewish claims…
Jan T. Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, p.248
It’s different in Poland. There it hurts me, it wounds me to the core. That’s why I can’t return. Because I would have nowhere to run to if I ever heard that I was a stranger, that I was unwanted in my native country. And this is something I wouldn’t be able to live with from day to day.
Janina Bauman, ‘Living with Anti-Semitism’
I feel guilty that after they died they were murdered again, denied a decent burial, denied tears, denied the truth about this hideous crime, and that for decades a lie was repeated….
Adam Michnik, ‘Poles and Jews: How Deep the Guilt?’
I. Writers and Writing On Trial
To the question—‘What do you think of the novelist as journalist?’ (‘Author’ 139)—Joseph Heller provides a clear answer. The author of the wartime novel Catch-22 and the creator of the unimaginable character of John Yossarian, an anti-hero that defied our every characterly expectation, a character whose expertise consisted in uncovering any pretext to withy his way out of duty, Heller rejoins in the negative. ‘I’m objective about it,’ he considers, ‘I don’t know of any good novelists who write good journalism’ (139). Heller is unequivocal. ‘I’ll stand on that general statement. I don’t know of a good novelist who is good as a nonfiction writer. I don’t think you can do both. I don’t think anybody can’ (139). Heller’s interlocutor is Charles T. Powers.
Powers who was the Eastern European Bureau chief in Warsaw for the Los Angeles Times from 1986 to 1991 completed a single novel In the Memory of the Forest (1997) before his premature death in 1996. Alan Cowell, who worked alongside Powers, when Powers was bureau chief in Nairobi, puts Powers in the company of other journalist-cum-novelists like Henry Morton Stanley and Ernest Hemingway. He recalls, in the elegiac ‘A Poet on Deadline, a Traveller Who Left Too Soon,’ on the eve of the posthumous novel’s glowing reception, that Powers ‘pioneered what become the vogue for Nairobi-based correspondents – fine leather jackets, Borsalino trilbies’ (Cowell). Cowell recollects a photograph in which high-profiled and eminently high-powered foreign correspondents from the U.S. gather in Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, to pose like ‘Masters of the Universe, empowered to nose and pry into a continent’s secrets.’ Cowell seems to re-evaluate that ‘self-confidence’ now at a distance, but the colonialist readings are inescapable. The feeling or rather the thirst for power, the ambition to have a ‘literary’ hand in history comes through clearly.
Thus, the allusion to Hemingway is particularly fitting. For Cowell, Powers always represented as he says an ‘author-in-waiting’ who ‘would compose something greater: the hack’s life on the road was a prelude to a state of literary grace’ (Cowell). And here we come up against a problem: the old problem as Powers phrased it to Joseph Heller earlier in his career—perhaps, we can imagine with his future novelistic ambitions already in mind—Can a journalist be a good novelist? This is not meant to be taken as a metaphysical unanswerable or enigma. In the earlier interview, Powers posited Norman Mailer as a paradigm for his journalist-novelist type or ideal. But we find an overabundance of examples where in fact the opposite is the case.
Hemingway, who I think it is fair to say was a ‘competent journalist’ before he tried his hand at penning novels, lost or abandoned some or all of his journalistic integrity and honesty once he came under the influence of artistic methodologies.
Writing of Hemingway’s correspondence for the New Republic during the Spanish Civil War, the British writer Anthony Burgess, in his biography of Hemingway, suggests that Hemingway’s reports were closer to ‘fiction’ than to fact. Hemingway, never one to compromise on art, took liberties with his reports, says Burgess, erroneously placing himself at the scene of the action, incorporating himself into the story to perpetuate the ‘narrative of his life’ and to advance his own ‘personal fiction’:
The fact is that Hemingway was never a very good war correspondent. His fiction-writer’s talent impelled him to invent, organize reality into aesthetic patterns, cultivate the ‘impressionism’ which Ford Madox Ford encouraged writers to carry over from fiction to real life. Truth, according to Ford, was not facts but vision – a view which justified suppression and distortion of facts, what ordinary people call lying. Hemingway’s temporary masters wanted to know the facts of the Spanish War, and Hemingway dished up a kind of subfiction in which he was the central character. His reportage of both the Spanish War and the one that followed immediately after is still very readable, but readable in the way that his self-confessed fiction is. (79)
Burgess’ assessment may not be free of the very ‘flourishes’ it discerns in Hemingway’s reportage. But the point still serves and resounds clearly. When Hemingway turned or returned to journalism once he was already an established novelist entity and hawked himself as a war correspondent neither fiction nor fact was visibly gained. Actually, both were rather compromised. This is not consummately to dismiss the potential for a writer of fiction to deliver well-informed and researched copy that augments the greater state of awareness, but to instead identify the standard pitfalls hidden within the journalistic field: That is the propensity of the vicarious novelist in the guise of journalist to veer into the imaginative realm of fiction and pass it off what is ‘fiction’ as ‘news’—and in effect expose the wannabe-novelist-in-waiting.
I am also not intending or pretending to probe or scrutinize Powers perspicacity as a journalist, but to seize on the strain, Daniel J. Boorstin awakens us to as implicit within the journalism speciality; namely, the indication that the formulating of ‘pseudo-events’ to fill newspapers occurs and is rampant. It occurs at deadline to meet the demand, to keep business rolling along as usual; it is there to keep our minds primed with novelties of varied and ‘distorted’ experience—this at all costs to the scruples that underlie good journalistic practice (8-9). ‘If there is no news visible to the naked eye, or to the average citizen,’ says Boorstin, ‘we still expect it to be there’ (8). This is again, let me be clear, not to recognize or recast the evils inherent whenever America tries to do business. But rather to debunk the myth of infallibility of the press and to spread the news that there exist forces within our most prized and entrusted institutions that see fit to cross and blur the divide between fact and fiction.
All the more alluring is the path to ‘expected’ venality, iniquity or insouciance when we perceive, as Cowell and others newsmen and women like himself perceive, that ‘[t]he power to make a reportable event is thus the power to make experience’ (Boorstin 10).
All of this by no means a way of foreboding or prematurely and unlawfully impugning Powers’ acclaimed novel In the Memory of the Forest but to express an apprehensiveness with its characteristic address. This is by way of foregrounding holding this novel of ‘historical memory’ to the highest fictional and non-fictional standards.
II. Historical Redress or ‘Historical Revisionism’ in Mapping Polish-Jewish Relations After Auschwitz
Poland’s post-factum response to the Holocaust, the extermination of the Jews en masse—that occurred in large part and was involuntarily witnessed on their own soil (Głowacka and Żylińska 2)—is all the more remarkable when viewed from the lens of a highly mobile and literate culture. The proliferation of political and literary subterranean pamphlets and periodicals during the wartime occupation should on the surface serve as a great moment in the history of rebellion. On the brink of societal collapse ‘[a]s never before and as never again, Warsaw under Hitler’s occupation was a city of the clandestine press’ (Kott 14) Jan Kott poignantly recalls in his introduction to Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman how
Borowski ran off his first volume of poetry [Wherever the Earth that predicted the extermination of mankind] himself on a mimeograph, which—he was to recollect afterward with irony in a postwar story—’while used to run off extremely precious radio bulletins and good advice (along with diagrams) on how to conduct street battle in the larger cities, served also to print up lofty, metaphysical hexameters.’ (Kott 14)
This should have been the apotheosis of art’s Nietzschean will to survive in the face of crisis.
But this story was not to be. Glaringly absent from these statements of hope and compassion was the ‘elusive subject’ (Gross 167) of the Jews. How to explain the striking absence of Jews from the wartime public discourse? How to comprehend ‘the limits of the ability of underground raporteurs to assimilate information’ (182) that would come to signify ‘the [Polish] intelligentsia’s last grand turn on the historical stage’ (188)? Jan T. Gross labels this the social phenomena of being ‘blinded by social distance.’ He speaks of it in terms of an altogether ‘estrangement of Jews from their Polish neighbours’ (173) within popular discourse.
While the mass of Polish society possessed a unique ‘contemporaneous knowledge of the Holocaust’ (169) and a unique responsibility to serve as ‘witnesses’ it was the abject failure of the Polish intelligentsia to matter, to ‘transform this scattered information about local events into knowledge about an epoch’ (189). As this history was unwritten, Poland is the crowning example of a situation where that memory was in fact erased or deliberately suppressed and forgotten, so that the ‘destruction of Polish Jewry was not registered’ (188) by the young generation and thus a crucial segment of Poland’s history was also lost.
The flood gates of history did not open up—elsewhere referred to as the ‘explosion of social memory’ (Michlic 21)—did not occur until after the fall of communism. This sudden ‘flood of memories’ has been criticized as ‘overdetermined by concerns of the present rather than the past’ (Głowacka and Żylińska 3). As a result of pressure from the West, Poland undertook a hurried and ‘substantial revision’ of its stance towards the historical Jewish presence in Poland (Lehrer 85). That highly suspect ‘historical revisionism’ is littered with attacks, doubts and questions in regards ‘to what extent Poland’s recent efforts to come to terms with its difficult past and to account for the disappearance of its Jewish culture may be related to the nation’s desire to discard the legacy of the communist era and to become a strong presence in the rapidly changing economic and geopolitical landscape of Europe’ (Głowacka and Żylińska 9).
The best indicator of the nature of these neoteric trends is the evidence of where the greatest efforts to redress the past are appearing. Jan T. Gross, Polish by birth, but American by orientation and a professor at Princeton University, is the leading representative in the movement to redress Polish’s past, specifically with respect to Polish-Jewish relations during and after the War. In Neighbours: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001) and more recently in Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz (2006) deigns to impose the burden of memory on Poland from the outside, delivering the blistering and objurgating hypothesis that ‘it was widespread collusion in the Nazi-driven plunder, spoliation, and eventual murder of the Jews that generated Polish ant-Semitism after the war’ (xiv). The most disconcerting and discomfiting part of this statement is the elucidation that even after Auschwitz and even after the publication of books by Poles like Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (1948), that encourage an ‘acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation, and mutual guilt’ (Kott 21) anti-Semitism within the Polish province did not disappear or abate. Rather, as Gross consistently demonstrates, anti-Semitism flourished. The virulent ‘renaissance’ (225) of anti-Semitism in postwar Poland and the unfathomable and unconscionable violence and plunder that it spawned as in the case of the Kielce pogrom, July 4, 1946, compare unimaginably with the worst of Nazi pogroms, i.e. Kristallnacht (156-157).
To the modern audience reading Gross’s danse macabre two questions are foremost: How can it be that inimical human violence and spoliation on the scale of the Kielce pogrom, ‘ the deadliest peacetime European pogrom of the twentieth century’ (Gross 156), occurred after Auschwitz? How did Polish historiography pass over or miss this demoralizing chapter in the fate of Polish history?
It is within this context in which welcome and adulate or glower and revile Charles T. Powers In the Memory of the Forest.
III. The Moral Expediency of ‘Crossing Over’
Charles T. Powers In the Memory of the Forest (1997) arrived at the epoch in history in which ‘little attention ha[d] been given to the inscriptions of these questions [questions of Polish-Jewish relations] in works of literature written in Poland, the United States, and elsewhere’ (Głowacka and Żylińska 9). The book enacted and inaugurated the metaphor of ‘crossing over.’ In Poland, one cannot go practically anywhere without crossing over a wood or forest. Borowski writes even of Auschwitz that ‘in front of the crematoria, a small wood which had to be crossed on the way to the gas’ (82). Powers story then is a narrative of hope, redemption and contrition.
The story is roughly contemporaneous to the publication of the book. Leszek, a youth on the brink of adulthood, living in a small town called Jadowia, searches for clues to unlock the mystery of his boyhood friend’s murder at the edge of the forest outside of Jadowia. In so doing—assuming the role of ‘American sleuth’—he manages to uncover the immiscible elements of the small town’s past: the corruption from the highest to the lowest levels during the Soviet era as well as the town’s less than admirable action or inaction during the Holocaust.
At the centre of the book’s contrivance or controversy—because the book is perhaps more provocative than it realizes or ever intends be—is the contentious issue of what constitutes a literature of restitution. In a situation where the stygian realities are so disputed and well obscured a higher standard of verisimilitude is required. And what some would argue is required is nothing less than authentic testimonials or ‘reports’ that rely on authentic testimonials.
Powers candidacy for the job is his coverage of solidarity missions: the ‘“Quick and Quiet” airlift that took Falashas to Israel’ and more pertinently, his coverage of Polish solidarity—‘The Solidarity Rallies Behind Walesa.’ But Powers’ ‘reporting’ In the Memory of the Forest while highly readable and entertaining does not always do justice to or present the facts on the ground.
At the beginning of the book the narrator Leszek delivers the message that the Polish memory is ‘short, incomplete’ (26) and the puzzling perspective that ‘[h]istory commenced here after the war, in the decade before we were born’ (26). That mysterious past we learn of and receive in snippets and whispers, gradually as the books progress, as Leszek comes to learn and process the history and provenance of his town plight. As Leszek the farmer tills and sifts through the soil of his forefathers.
The first major ‘Jewish incident’ in the book is the foundation stones that suddenly go missing from the houses of the townspeople. No evidence of the perpetrators of the crime is recoverable. This event is interpreted by the townspeople as evidence for the fact that the Jews are returning to reclaim their land, elsewhere in Europe but also here in the town (177). This also ignites a frantic digging for Jewish gold, at least temporarily, and also for the resident historian, apostle, engine of change, the old, bookish but new resident Father Tadeusz to reproach the fact that the town has ‘no archive, no memorial’ (170). Is this a reincarnation or homage to Tadeusz Borowski, who died by his own hand in 1951?
Which should pause at this point to ascertain the veracity of these representations. Powers is an excellent source on Polish guilt and opportunism that was responsible for much of the ill sentiment and violence to Jews even after the war that Gross cites. Powers puts in the mouth of his characters damning truths of the postwar era: ‘he thinks he can get something from nothing’ (170) referring to the hunt for Jewish gold and property and the shame and guilt that the confiscation of Jewish property bred—’What if someone shows up and takes me to court?’ (178). He is less apprising in his portrayal of the psychological realities and the capacity for change that existed in Poland after Auschwitz. Small towns were notorious for being hotbeds of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence where acts of any sort were less accountable to a higher authority and where the people were less well educated. The Jews were ‘a resource that could be harvested’ (Gross 42) and since they were weak, beaten down and bruised there was no reason why they couldn’t be exploited to the utmost.
Priest and clergy were not exempt from the antisemitic fervour. Rather if anything they seemed to lead the charge. In relation to the Kielce Pogrom mentioned already, Bishop Kubina who issued the ‘only public statement by a Catholic bishop’ condemning the attacks and violence was summarily undermined by the Cardinal Hlond (151). Church historians writing in Poland even in the 1990s called the exhortation to condemn anti-Semitism at the time as tantamount to espousing Bolshevism (151). Powers does acknowledge at one point if only obliquely the church’s need to ‘cleanse and redeem itself’ (255). But this comment is more directed at the Church’s operations or corruptions under Communism than in relation to the Jewish question.
Powers story becomes more and more implausible and cinematic as we come to know the ‘agents of memory’ in the town: Czarnek and ‘the older Mr. Maleszewski’ (375), Leszek’s grandfather, who are not unknown to each other. Leszek’s grandfather served with the partisans during the war and at one point gave up Czarnek’s family to the Nazis to save his own partisan troupe and mission.
The older Mr. Maleszewski is the one we learn behind the disappearing foundation stones—actual frangible pieces of Jewish gravestone, that he is using to build a secret memorial to redress his past.
Then there is Czarnek, whose welfare Leszek’s father saw to in return for secrets for the local voivode during the Soviet era. After Czarnek is exposed by Father Tadeusz, he decides to celebrate Passover and to light the ceremonial menorah, normally lit during the festival of Hanukah, as tribute to the ‘[e]ighty percent’ (256) of the town before the war that is no longer present. He then promptly commits suicide, a suicide that at once seems as inexplicable as Tadeusz Borowski’s. All of these touching turns seem too easy an egress, sudden and dramatic.
The ethic of the book is carried along, is set in relief or lightened, toned-down or distorted by the mix of several messy but ‘quotidian’ marital affairs among other things that do nothing for the gravity of the subject matter we are dealing with.
In consequence, Powers in his highly readable journalese risks oversimplification, risks palliating and attenuating the horror. By the end of the book the only pejorative left on the wall is ‘Jews to the gas’ (239) and even this seems wiped clean or erased. This is moral relativism or the moral economy or moral expediency at its worst, the kind that marked the actions of Poles after the war. This ‘solidarity’ sounds the alarm of acquiescence. It is almost hectoring and it is unknowingly ingenuous and complicit. As a newly ordained novelist, Powers simply takes his poetic license too far. And the writing of history will simply suffer for it. Our worst fear that ‘he fails to distinguish between reality and illusion’ (Borowski 104) are realized. In this, he falls in line with other works of Holocaust commercialism.
Boorstin, Daniel J. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Trans. Barbara Vedder. New York: Penguin, 1976.
Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Cowell, Alan. ‘A Poet on Deadline, a Traveller Who Left Too Soon.’ International Herald Tribune (4 July 1997).
Głowacka, Dorota and Joanna Żylińska. ‘Introduction: Imaginary Neighbors: Toward an Ethical Community.’ Imaginary Neighbors: Mediating Polish-Jewish Relations. Eds. Dorota Głowacka and Joanna Żylińska. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007.
Gross, Jan T. Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. New York: Random House, 2006.
Kott, Jan. Introduction. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Trans. Barbara Vedder. New York: Penguin, 1976.
Lehrer, Erica. ‘Bearing False Witness? ‘Vicarious’ Jewish Identity and Politics of Affinity.’ Imaginary Neighbors: Mediating Polish-Jewish Relations. Eds. Dorota Glowacka and Joanna Zylinska. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007.
Michlic, Joanna B. ‘The Dark Past: Polish-Jewish Relations in the Shadow of the Holocaust.’Imaginary Neighbors: Mediating Polish-Jewish Relations. Eds. Dorota Glowacka and Joanna Zylinska. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007.
Powers, Charles T. ‘Author on Top of the World.’ Conversations With Joseph Heller. Ed. Adam J. Sorkin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993
_______________. In the Memory of the Forest. New York: Penguin, 1997.
_______________. ‘Solidarity rallies behind Walesa.’ The Windsor Star (28 Nov. 1990): A8.
_______________. ‘‘Quick and quiet’ airlift took Falashas to Israel.’ The Gazette (26 Mar. 1985) A2.