Life Against Death: The Writings of Ida Fink and Tadeusz Borowski
Jolanta W. Best
Like Primo Levi and Paul Celan, Ida Fink excels in transforming individual wartime experiences into literature. Born in Poland in 1921, she was a music student who lived in a ghetto in German-occupied Poland until 1942, when she escaped. She survived the war among Polish farm laborers, herself masquerading as one. The names of the heroes who risked their lives daily to provide her with false identity papers and a job remain unknown; it appears that they have not been recognized or rewarded. The story of Ida Fink's survival is concealed in her heart.(1) She emigrated to Israel in 1957, together with her husband and daughter. She now lives in Holon near Tel Aviv, and is still writing. She writes mostly in Polish, but her writings have appeared in Hebrew, English, Dutch, French and German translations. She received the Anne Frank Prize for Literature in 1985, and the Yad Vashem Prize in 1995. Fink is the author of A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (1987), of the novels The Journey (1992) and Traces (1997), of several radio plays broadcast in Israel and elsewhere, and of other works.
A Scrap of Time depicts the life of Jews in Poland during and after the Second World War. The Journey deals with the peregrination of two Polish Jewish sisters who sought to escape the Nazi terror. Her other works likewise belong to Holocaust literature. The novels often use a first-person narrative to highlight the enormity of destruction that occurred during the Second World War in Central and Eastern Europe.
While the fate of European Jewry was determined by the Nazis who invaded Poland in September 1939 and occupied half of the country (the other half was invaded by the Soviets and occupied by them until 1941 when the Soviet-German war broke out), the tragedy of Jewish extermination occurred on Polish soil. This fact will matter forever to the Polish population. On January 20, 1942, at a conference at Wannsee near Berlin, top Nazi officials, including Adolf Eichmann, proposed and accepted "the final solution to the Jewish question." It was decided that Jews would be evacuated from all parts of occupied Europe to camps in the ‘East' (read: Poland) where they would be exterminated.Fink's writings take on the subtleties of moral behavior in critical situations. E.g., those persons who were either pressed or compelled to go to Germany to do ‘voluntary' labor for the Reich: can they be judged by standards that prevail in peacetime societies? Fink tells individual stories in an understated way. She seems to avoid mere words. She uses images, symbols, and metaphors (especially those deriving from nature) to highlight the facts: "The Garden That Floated Away," "A Spring Morning," "A Scrap of Time." Her heroes are possessed of two types of recollection: the horizontal one which registers the conventional everyday events, and the vertical one which reaches deeply into the subconscious and into the obscure layers of the psyche. The second is triggered off by some sign or event, like Marcel Proust's madeleine: "Look for a trace, says one of the characters, the first clue often leads to a second, the second to the third, and so on."(2)
The people in Fink's stories make an effort to reconstruct the past. They measure time not in months and years, but as internal time. This ‘time within' is placed under the layers of months and years, and it is called experience. It is not "just one scrap of time."(3) The ‘time within' measures much more than a remembrance of the roundups and actions during the war: "We had different measures of time, always with that mark of difference."(4) Fink asserts that after the war survivors wanted to talk about that ‘time within,' but they did not know how. Individuals were afraid to confront their experiences and were terrified to find the interior time touched by forgetfulness. Eventually, they returned to that ‘time within' and began to produce that flood of memoirs and writings about the Holocaust that now exists in print.
It is important to emphasize that the cruel realism of Fink's writings exists side by side with hope and spiritual persistence. Such characters as Zygmunt, Eugenia and the cheerful Zofia in "Traces," or Elìbieta and Katarzyna in "The Journey," desire to live and to retain their dream of love, joy and happiness while surrounded by the barbaric anarchy of foreign occupation.
An urge to survive in every sense is prominent in Fink's prose. It distinguishes her works from those of some other postwar writers about the Holocaust, e.g., from the writings of Tadeusz Borowski, the author of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, who committed suicide in 1951. Borowski, a Gentile, was of the same age and he went through similar experiences, but his desire to survive was much less pronounced.
Borowski wrote about the extermination camps using a matter-of-fact tone and a first person narrative. He explored human depravity and degradation rather than the morsels of hope and life in concentration camps. In that regard, he was like Varlaam Shalamov who likewise described the Soviet extermination camps with detached objectivity and without any signs of hope (upon his release after two decades of camps, Shalamov went mad). In a similar manner, Borowski's stories shock the reader by their brutal factuality. They describe human beings who were forced to choose between physical and spiritual survival ("Farewell to Maria" or "The Stone World," both written in 1948). Indeed, Borowski's vision of the world is that of a concentration camp, as demonstrated in his volume of poetry titled Wherever on Earth published clandestinely in Warsaw in 1942. The author writes about the end of the human race. At that time, the sky is seen as "a [concentration camp] factory ceiling." Later, the author speaks of "the whole camp, like the whole world."(5)
In Borowski's writings, there are no vital signs of life and no antithesis to death. He does not ‘enjoy the day' before disaster. He did enjoy life in his early writings, however, before his experience of Nazi camps. In contrast, Fink seems to assert that an ability to love plays an important role in life, even at moments when dehumanization and death are imminent. For Fink, as for Dostoevsky, even short moments suffice to savor the beauty of life. She appears to say that it matters to the utmost how a person lives, and not how long he/she lives. For Borowski, an appropriate comparison would rather be Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit. Even in love lyrics written for his fiancée, Maria Rundo, in 1944, Borowski shies away from embracing a trust in life.
Let us look at a letter written to Maria in 1942, before his encounter with the world constructed by the Nazis:
This attitude of softness and affection is absent in the Stone World (Warsaw, 1948). The events recorded here are a testimony of a witness who is bent on telling the whole truth about human degradation in Nazi concentration camps. Such an attitude cannot but bring despair in the end. A refusal to see any glimmers of hope leads to suicide. In contrast, a desire for life in Fink's narratives is a clear alternative to death. The reality of dying is contrasted with a deep, tender, self-identifying need for love and happiness. Feelings are defined in a universal way. The author of "A Scrap of Time" perceives love as a complexity stretched out between the powers of Eros and Thanatos. The characters in Traces and The Journey recognize their individuality in a fusion of affection for each other and in the fear of death. Eugenia fulfills her life in a late love found when the ghetto is liquidated. Adela is able to learn about happiness in a village decimated by executions performed by the Germans. She discovers "this incomprehensible and cruel possibility" of being felicitous in the face of death. In "The End," a story in Traces, Piotr and his girlfriend are surrounded by the circumstances of life in a big city under foreign military occupation. They come to know so-called ‘actions,' ‘roundups,' killings and annihilation. They are aware of grave dangers at every step, but they try to insulate and cherish the moments of their personal relationship: "It is an important night, Love, because it's our night." "Piotr, think about it--three months of happiness."
The shortness of time is striking in Fink's stories. The yearning to exist fully in these scraps of time is set against the anticipation of death. People try to love and live quickly, suddenly, tenderly because soon it might be too late. "Please understand, says one girl, I'm just so sad that I'll never know, that I'll die without ever knowing love!"
The Jewish characters of Fink's stories identify and recognize themselves as primarily consisting of their dreams, hopes, and possibilities, rather than their physical bodies. They abound in self-esteem in conditions that generally destroy self-esteem. Fink's heroes retain their inner world even under the threat of death. Death may happen suddenly and come as a surprise, as in the case of a character names Tsaritsa. It can be visualized by the footprints remaining in the snow, the footprints of people who were killed. However, in Fink's stories life is intimately related to death. Fink enlists all human, especially Jewish, tragedies to make her point. The thesis advanced by her stories can be formulated in the following way: the meaning of life is not compromised in the face of death and annihilation. Life has value in its qualitative, not quantitative, aspect. This affirmation is absent in Tadeusz Borowski's camp stories.
1. Biographical information derives from the autobiographies in the following editions of Fink's works: A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (NY: Pantheon Books, 1987); Traces: Stories (NY: Metropolitan Books, 1997); Traces: Stories (NY: Henry Holt, 1998); The Journey (NY: Farrar Straus, 1992); Skrawek czasu (London: Aneks, 1987). Additional information was obtained online from the following websites:
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