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Wartime Truths

In 1945, Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel of the Warsaw ghetto enraged Poles and Jews alike. How will it read to audiences today?

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Jerzy Andrzejewski

In the spring of 1943, Jerzy Andrzejewski was living in a small apartment on Warsaw’s narrow Nowiniarska Street that offered a view of the ghetto. On the eve of Passover, he watched as German troops marched through the openings in the 10-foot tall brick walls to round up the remaining 56,000 Jews for deportation. Finding the streets inside deserted, they were met by 750 inhabitants who, fighting with arms smuggled in by members of the Polish resistance, launched the first urban uprising against the Germans.

Before the war, Andrzejewski, a Catholic writer with left-wing inclinations, had won acclaim for a 1936 collection of stories, Unavoidable Roads, and his 1938 debut novel Mode of the Heart, about a priest’s nighttime interaction with a murderer. Outraged by what he had witnessed—not only the brutality of the German troops, but the disregard of Polish Catholics, who cheerfully went about preparing for Easter—he immediately began dramatizing the events he witnessed into a short novel, Holy Week, which he reworked over the next two years and published, in a collection of wartime stories titled Night, in 1945.

One of the earliest fictional accounts of the Holocaust—and the first literary representation of the Warsaw ghetto uprising—Holy Week has, nevertheless, largely been forgotten outside of academic circles. It was not published again in Poland until 1993, despite the fact that after the war Andrzejewski emerged as one of the country’s most prominent writers, and one of the few known outside of Poland. His 1948 novel Ashes and Diamonds, which documents the political power struggles following the Soviet “liberation” of German-occupied Poland, is considered a classic. But even 50 years later, when Andrzej Wajda made Holy Week into a film, the Polish public’s reception was cool, and the film, alone among Wajda’s many acclaimed works, remains unavailable in the United States, just as the novella itself has never been published in English—until earlier this year, when Ohio University Press published a new translation by Oscar Swan.

Condensed into four days of the Christian Holy Week and culminating on Good Friday, the story begins as Jan Malecki, a young Catholic architect, attempts to catch a streetcar near the ghetto on his way home from work. Stopped by gunfire, he encounters an old friend, Irena Lillien, and, surprised to find her still alive, pulls her into an apartment building nearby. Tall and strikingly beautiful, Irena is Jewish, the daughter of a highly esteemed professor, and clearly once the object of Jan’s affections. He takes Irena to his villa apartment on the far northern suburbs of the city, where he and his new wife, Anna, seven months pregnant, must decide whether to risk the consequences of helping her.

A searing indictment of Polish anti-Semitism in its vilest forms, the tight, dramatic novel also condemns well-intentioned but inactive Polish liberals like Jan. It certainly was not what Polish readers wanted to think about in the immediate aftermath of war. Though it won the 1946 City of Kraków Literary Prize, critics “passed over the work largely in silence,” writes Swan, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Pittsburgh, in his introduction to the translation. Polish readers, he continues, “were in no mood in 1945 to read about a temporizing hero’s vacillations over whether to harbor a Jew during the war.”

They weren’t alone. The novel managed to alienate Catholics (who were offended by Andrzejewski’s scathing depiction of Jan’s neighbors), Jews (who protested that Irena, the novel’s sole Jewish character, was both unlikable and atypical), liberals (who were appalled by the quavering, hypocritical Jan), and even his fellow writers, who criticized him for turning the horror of their times into art so quickly.

If its immediacy proved off-putting to contemporary readers, today that urgency is the story’s greatest strength. Though writing in dramatic form, Andrzejewski was doing something akin to war reporting, documenting events as they happened and exploring moral questions as he lived them. An outspoken critic of anti-Semitism (in 1947, he contributed to The Dead Wave, a collection of essays condemning the resurgence of anti-Semitic violence), Andrzejewski, even early in his career, sought to be a moral authority. Over the course of the war, his best friend from the period, Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz later wrote, Andrzejewski “successfully realized his ambition… [he] belonged to those inhabitants of our town who reacted violently against this mass slaughter. He fought with his pen against the indifference of others, and personally helped Jews in hiding even though such aid was punishable by death.”

Born in Warsaw in 1909, “the son of a merchant and an impoverished noblewoman,” as he wrote of himself to Milosz, Andrzejewski was “a very restless youth, rocked back and forth between extreme opposites,” as his changing politics over the course of his life would prove. He studied literature and language at the University of Warsaw, but left in 1931 without a degree. Tall, lean, bespectacled, and arrogant, he was, according to his poet friend, “gifted with an exceptional sense of humor in conversation.”

Early in his career, Andrzejewski worked as a literary and theater reviewer for two conservative, right-wing papers—though there’s no evidence that he shared the political affiliations of his employers, he severed ties in 1937, in protest of growing anti-Semitism in Poland. By then the nationalist government, having already imposed economic and social restrictions, had inspired violence against Jews; in 1937, the Polish foreign minister told parliament that the country had room for only half a million of its 3.5 million Jews. Andrzejewski’s early works earned him comparisons to his countryman Joseph Conrad (which thrilled the young writer, for whom Conrad was a favorite), and the prestigious and lucrative Polish Academy’s Young Writers’ Prize in 1939.

The war put an end to this. He broke with the Catholic church, joined the Resistance, married and soon had two children (though he was homosexual), and forged a deep friendship with Milosz, whose famous poem about the ghetto uprising, “Campo dei Fiori,” features an image of the Easter holiday carousel that also appears in Holy Week. After the war both writers went to work for the new Polish Communist government, but Milosz defected in 1951 and soon published a damning critique of his friend, “Alpha the Moralist,” which Timothy Snyder, writing in The Nation, recently called “one of the most pitiless condemnations of one intellectual by another in print.” In it Milosz, detailing how his friend cooperated with the Communists and basked in the spoils—popularity, a lavish villa—of Party approval, reveals that among the Polish literati he was known as the “respectable prostitute.”

Nazis guard an opening in the ghetto wall during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943
Nazis guard an opening in the ghetto wall during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943

Though Andrzejewski and Milosz soon reconciled, Andrzejewski’s close affiliation with the Communists permanently damaged his reputation, even though he eventually renounced the government—an act for which he paid the price of slander to his person and censorship of his work. After he resigned from the Party in 1957, he became—and remained—a bold critic of the government, offering enormous support to younger dissidents, and continued to write politically charged and highly innovative novels that, because of government censorship, became increasingly difficult to publish within Poland. He died, an alcoholic, of a heart attack in Warsaw in 1983.

On its surface, Holy Week is a powerful, public denunciation of atrocities, one written—and read aloud to fellow writers—during the last two years of the war, when the act of writing it could have gotten him killed. The Polish characters run the gamut from those grateful to Hitler (“He’s relieved us of the whole burdensome and, let’s frankly admit, unpleasant and dirty business,” says one of Jan’s business associates. “Now there won’t even be a Jewish question”) to those who want to help the Jews but struggle with conflicted feelings, such as Jan, who realizes “there was within him more unease and terror than actual love toward these defenseless people.”

In recent decades, Jewish scholars have strongly criticized the work—it is, after all, a story purportedly about the ghetto uprising that takes places entirely outside of the ghetto walls. Most troubling to many is the character of Irena, who some, despite Andrzejewski’s good intentions, view as a tangle of stereotypes, and others as unsympathetic. Swan calls her “spoiled, whiny, and self-centered.” Madeline G. Levine, a Slavic scholar and critically lauded translator of Milosz’s prose, writes that Irena is “inhumanly cold,” “totally lacking in compassion for non-Jews,” and “not particularly grateful to those who have risked (and actually give) their lives to try to save her,” (the last of which is accurate—the first two, not so).

When Jan and Irena meet, they have not seen each other in two years, a period in which she has lost her entire family and her dignity, hiding herself in different places, using the last of her money to pay ransom to would-be denouncers. During that time, she had tried to contact Jan, but he—for reasons more banal than hard-hearted—failed to return the correspondence: “Despite all the wartime calamities, he was beginning a new life, and there is among people no dividing line greater or more absolute than that between the happiness of some and the suffering of others. Affairs great and small divide people, yet none so sharply as the inequality of fate.”

Jan finds Irena much changed. Though still attired in a lovely, English-made suit, she is embittered and angry. Her appearance, he notes, for the first time looks “Semitic.” Yet is it any surprise that Irena is furious and distant, that she has learned to look even an old lover in the eye and wonder if he’ll turn her in? When she responds ungraciously to a Polish woman whose son has just returned, wrecked, from Auschwitz, it is not hard to understand her coldness: the woman still has her son there with her, peeling potatoes for their dinner, while just beyond the walls of the apartment lies the ghetto—where Irena herself had been held before her father paid a high ransom for her release. As Irena tells Jan: “That woman is not the unhappiest person in the world. She doesn’t have to die from the fear that at any moment they can shoot her sons just because they are who they are. She at least has them, you understand?”

Does her bitterness seem natural? Today, 20 years after Levine wrote an essay arguing that the book’s moral stance is not clear, she said, in a recent interview: “Out of the context of the story, as an individual human being? Sure. But within the story it plays, by force, a different role, because [Irena] represents Jews in the story and there is no alternative.” It is Irena’s response to tragedy—as pitted against that of Jan’s wife, Anna—that Levine finds problematic. “She is shown as responding in a Jewish way, and Anna in a properly Catholic way, so that Irena represents the Old Testament vengeance, and Anna represents forgiveness, redemption and hope.”

Irena may be the only Jewish character in the novel—a common critique of Andrzejewski’s writing is that characters are drawn only to represent different moral positions—but she is a vivid, fully realized character who stirs sympathies and engages the reader’s intellect. She is warm and kind to Jan’s wife; honest in her assessment of Jan; smart and savvy in her interactions with his brother, who fights with the Partisans; and empathetic in her simultaneous desire to live and her sharp resistance to hiding.

“One might have called it a piece of commonsense journalism,” Milosz wrote of Andrzejewski’s novel, Ashes and Diamonds, “had it not been for something that always distinguished him as a writer: pity, pity for the old Communist as well as for those who considered him their enemy. Because he felt compassion for both these forces, he succeeded in writing a tragic novel.” The same could well be said of Holy Week. Jan may be cowardly in his convictions (it is perhaps no surprise that he shares biographic details with his author), but even in his failings his humanity comes through.

This new translation of Holy Week may well be ignored, as the original was in 1945, and the film in the 1990s. It is possible, however, that it will find a new generation of readers who value the immediacy of its author’s honest eyewitness account. Perhaps such readers will not dismiss the book as a confirmation of stereotypes, but find in Andrzejewski’s story a new understanding of one Pole, who witnessed the ghetto burning, watched friends die, and immediately put into print—for the first time in Polish literature, Swan claims—not only his countrymen’s anti-Semitism in violent form but also a tragic tale about the weakness of human nature. 60 years later, a new audience may find that Irena acts very much as readers imagine they or their friends might act in her place: A strong young woman becoming, in the midst of her suffering, not angelic but enraged.

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Wartime Truths

In 1945, Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel of the Warsaw ghetto enraged Poles and Jews alike. How will it read to audiences today?

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