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Holy Week: A Novel of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Joanna Rostropowicz Clark

By Jerzy Andrzejewski. Foreword by Jan Gross, translated with a commentary by Oscar Swan. Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press-Polish and Polish American Series, 2007. xxiv + 149 pages. ISBN 0-8214-1716-9. Paper.

In The Warsaw Ghetto: the 45th anniversary of the uprising, a book published in Warsaw in 1987, there is a photograph of a partly assembled (no swings) carousel. It stands close to the much taller wall of the Jewish ghetto, marked with bullet holes. In the right foreground corner two German soldiers operate a cannon, aimed at the wall, while two others crouch in the left corner. The street appears to be rather narrow and is empty of any human presence. Absence of smoke over the wall indicates an early stage of the Uprising, Monday or Tuesday of Easter week.

It was near such a spot, on April 20, 1943, that Jan Malecki, the main protagonist of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel, ran into Irena Lilien, a beautiful Jewish woman whom he had courted before the war. He had not seen her since the Lilien family, once wealthy and intellectually prominent, began to encounter their first wartime troubles related to the German occupation. He thought that they would manage, or rather put them out of his thoughts after he met and married Anna, a Catholic who at the time of the story is eight months pregnant. Before he sees Irena Malecki observes a street scene, a curious and excited crowd, and the narrative both follows his eye and provides a seemingly detached commentary that is sustained throughout the entire story. We are told, “Hardly anyone pitied the Jews. The populace was mainly glad that the despised Germans were now beset by a new worry. In the estimation of the average person on the street, the very fact that fighting was taking place with a handful of solitary Jews made the victorious occupiers look ridiculous” (8-9). Then the carousel comes into view. In fact, two carousels, “not yet completely assembled, evidently being readied for the upcoming holiday” and used as a cover for helmeted German soldiers “kneeling on the platform,” their rifles pointed at the wall (9). As indicated by the map of the uprising, this area saw the heaviest fighting during the first three days. Also there, on narrow Bonifraterska Street, the map shows two points where the Polish underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa) and the People’s Guard (Gwardia Ludowa) smuggled weapons to the insurgents. Those who lived in the northern districts of Warsaw of Žoliborz and Bielany needed to pass by that site on their way from the city’s center, as did Andrzejewski with his pregnant wife.

In extreme situations people tend to shed their particularity and behave as members of their primary community. Andrzejewski brilliantly portrays such situations in his fiction; his characters change under pressure but do not quite cease to be themselves, do not become generic. Thus Irena, formerly a-free-spirited and cosmopolitan, charming member of the privileged class of assimilated Polish Jews, becomes an almost stereotypical Jewish woman four years into the war against Jews, bitter and, in the last scene, vengeful. But Andrzejewski fully justifies her harshness. Her parents, abandoned by their prewar friends, have already perished together with the poor and the unassimilated in the ghetto established by Germans, and she has been constantly on the run from various shelters on the “Aryan” side, chased by ubiquitous informers who bring death to those who hide and those who provide hideouts. When we meet her she does not restrain her hatred for all non-Jews, Poles and Germans, since they either participate in the murder-she tells Malecki-or turn away from the victim. Confronted with stark examples of tragedies suffered by the Poles, she is not moved: unlike the Jews, only some are dying among the Poles.

Works of fiction should not be misread as statements of historical fact.

Malecki, his conscience burdened by his previous neglect of the Liliens, acts according to the norms of his social milieu (which nominally he and Irena still share): he controls his irritation and takes her home, fully aware of how dangerous this will be for him, her, and those who shelter her, and how emotionally uncomfortable for himself. In creating Malecki’s character as a close projection of himself, Andrzejewski does not spare him from all the defects of a self-centered, somewhat opportunistic intellectual who wants to avoid trouble above all. His egotism comes under attack not only from Irena but also from his younger brother Julek, a member of the military underground, and even from his saintly wife, as both she and Julek are unreservedly sympathetic to the plight of the Jews. Julek accuses Malecki of minimalizing prewar anti-Semitism in Poland, while Anna doubts if he really knows her true self. And yet, with all his fears and confusion, Malecki does the right thing. He shelters Irena, and when it becomes clear that again she is not safe in his apartment (threatened by a couple of low-class neighbors in solidarity with other tenants), he ventures out to find a new place for her. While on this mission he is killed by members of a renegade ultranationalist faction. In the senseless, but not out of the ordinary, randomness of his death, the artistic power of the story is condensed.

The Polish and Jewish societies had been parallel for centuries, but since the Enlightenment a slow current of assimilation pushed the dividing line toward cultural peripheries. The forced separation of Jews from Poles by the German occupants in order to facilitate the program of genocide rapidly destroyed the vulnerable web of integration within the upper strata of society. Andrzejewski‘s choice to introduce only one Jewish protagonist in Holy Week underscores the fact that in the face of the final solution, and in the eyes of the outsider, Poland‘s differentiated Jews had become one. Irena‘s transformation, preceded by her father’s merging into the death march of other Jews, asserts the absoluteness of the divide. Poles can still sing their Gorzkie Žale (Bitter Lamentations) on Good Friday and prepare for the rites of the Resurection, while the Jews on that Passover have nowhere to flee their gehenna. But there is also another parallel here, between Poles who sympathize with the Jewish victim and are willing to help (Anna, Julek and his buddy Wacek, an office clerk Marta), and those who aid the Nazis, either out of greed, ingrained prejudice, or concurrence with racist ideology. The equal numbers in the two groups in the novel is symbolic. Through such symbolism Andrzejewski addresses what he perceives to be the indifference of the majority of Poles; in his view, they hated the Germans but did not pity the Jews. It is at them that Andrzejewski directs his j’accuse, using the the historical moment when the smoke over the burning Ghetto still lingered over the rest of Warsaw.

While at work on this story Andrzejewski discussed it with friends, among them Czesław Miłosz and Ryszard Matuszewski, a literary critic. Matuszewski lived near the Andrzejewskis and travelled the same route, and he later insisted that the carousel in Miłosz’s famous poem “Campo di Fiori” was a metaphor, that no carousel was ever set up and certainly could not have been in use during or shortly after the Uprising in the area that was destroyed by fire (Tomasz Szarota, “Karuzela na Placu Krasińskich: czy śmiały się tłumy wesołe?” Rzeczpospolita, 28 February 2004). A similar metaphor of racing and ringing chariots appears in a poem “Łuk Tytusa” (The Arch of Titus) by Teofil Lenartowicz, a nineteenth-century Polish poet, and it refers there to the behavior of the Roman crowds at the sight of the martyred Christians at the Colosseum. Miłosz, who was fond of Lenartowicz, most likely remembered that very poem in the spring of 1943.

I mention this predecessor of Miłosz’s “Campo di Fiori“ as a caution against misreading works of fiction as statements of historical fact. In his afterword, the translator Oscar Swan admonishes Andrzej Wajda for “tampering with historical reality” (134) in the carousel scene of his film version of Holy Week. In that scene Julek and Wacek are using the carousel as a decoy from which they scout the terrain on their assignement to smuggle weapons to the Ghetto; that fictional image does conform with historical documents. Professor Swan applies the same criticism of historical inaccuracy to Andrzejewski in regard to “the entire subplot of Julek and his gang [my emphasis, JRC], for which there is scant justification” (134). Although a footnote clarifies this error, the reader is left with the notion that both Andrzejewski and Wajda tried “to soften the depiction of Warsaw’s inhabitants” (134). This is a serious and incorrect imputation.

Different criteria of truth apply to the work of historians and the work of literature. Both yield to interpretation, but while the historian and his critics must strive for verifiability, writers of fiction and their readers rely on their individual notions of plausibility that in turn is susceptible to changing interpretative conventions. In Professor Swan‘s interpretation, Andrzejewski’s novel offers a “scathing indictment of Roman Catholicism as practiced by the average Pole, including an implicit criticism of the Church as a source of moral guidance for the people during the war” (141). Such a view makes an unwarranted jump between fictional presentation and historical fact, in addition to disregarding Anna’s profound Catholicism and the importance of her conversation with Irena on the subject of Faith. Although Anna agrees with Irena that evil presently triumphs over goodness, she adds that Faith helps her to be a better person; a pronouncement of Andrzejewski’s own Catholicism. The loss of her father and two brothers in the war cannot be dismissed as the “distractive theme of ‘we Poles suffered too,’” which in Swan’s opinion was “more muted in the novel than in Wajda’s film” (138). There is a powerful scene in the novel in which a nasty little boy, son of the villainous Piotrowskis (Polish equivalent of the American racist “white trash”), pretends to be a crucified Jesus. For Swan this is an example of the novel’s mockery of religious symbols while its poignancy lies in the reversed mockery of crucifiction-not by the New Testament’s Jews, but by Polish scum in 1943 Warsaw. It cannot be denied that the Church in Poland, its clergy severely persecuted, did less badly than elsewhere in providing assistance to the condemned Jews. Monasteries and convents (Anna plans to direct Irena to one of them) collaborated with the Council for Aid to the Jews, Žegota-which Swan seems to confuse with the Home Army, the only such charitable organization in all of the occupied Europe. The above remarks stem from a larger concern about a persistent tendency to lecture Poles about their inadequate repentance for their much-debated complicity in the Holocaust-as if that complicity and belated repentance were not, alas, pertinent to the entire civilized world including the United States. Professor Swan cannot be blamed for his sense of shock engendered by Holy Week: such was the intention of its author. He deserves praise for initiating this first publication of Holy Week in English, a class project with his University of Pittsburgh students.

Professor John J. Bukowczyk, the editor of the Polish and Polish American Studies Series, writes in the editor’s preface that this publication of the novel “should serve to honor and memorialize its author and other Poles possessed of the courage and integrity to plumb this dark recess within the otherwise noble heart of their country” (xii). One may add that their courage was often met with resistance, as it would in most countries; the preference is always for heroic rather than self-accusatory narratives. Both Andrzejewski and Miłosz wrote in the rebellious (one might say, postcolonial) spirit of a yet another Pole, Tadeusz Borowski, who advised his fellow writers to approach the subject of war atrocities in a way exemplified in his Auschwitz stories (he was an Auschwitz inmate): “But write that you, you were the ones who did this,” as quoted by Jan Kott in his introduction to Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Penguin, 1976). Few could, even though there was hardly any Polish writer who during the early postwar years did not eulogize the victims of Zagłada (the Polish word for the Holocaust). Various ideological shifts under the communist regime stifled the discourse, historic and artistic, on the issue of Polish-Jewish relations. After the fall of communism it has returned in full force, and with an echo of the same parallelism to which Holy Week so wrenchingly testifies.

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