FEBRUARY 27, 2013
We are all collaborators. On a more or less grand scale, for a day or a lifetime. All that differentiates us are the experiences and the circumstances, which allow us to gauge the extent of our compromises.
— Agata Tuszynska, Vera Gran: The Accused
IN HISTORIAN AND POET Agata Tuszynska’s metaphysical inquest into the nature of collaboration, she unravels the story of Vera Gran, celebrated singer of the Warsaw Ghetto, who was accused after the war of collaborating with the Germans.
Collaborate. A word that usually means to work cooperatively, to create together — a joyous word when painters collaborate on a mural, when a playwright and a director and actors mount a play. The sinister meaning of that word did not appear in European dictionaries until 1940, in Vichy France. In Polish, kolaboracja.
How can we understand this concept, we who did not have the misfortune to live in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 or in Chartres in 1944, when Robert Capa photographed a French crowd jeering a young woman, her head shaved bald, clutching to her breast an infant fathered by a German soldier?
“All that differentiates us,” Tuszynska writes, “are the experiences and circumstances which allow us to gauge the extent of our compromises.” In Manhattan recently, a man shoves another man onto the tracks in front of the oncoming Q train. What will you do in those seconds while the victim still clings to the side of the platform? How fast are your reflexes? What are you willing to risk? Your life? Your arm? “No one’s story exists out of historical context,” Tuszynska reminds us, and besides, who can demand heroic behavior from others?
“History often places us in the context of a tragic choice,” Tuszynska observes. “We collaborate with fate, we come to terms with it. We are capable of justifying nearly all our weaknesses.”
For Tuszynska, the Warsaw ghetto is a “reference point.” Though the survivors say they are the only ones who can understand life in a ghetto, Tuszynska dares to try and understand. She has her reasons. “I want to survive and know the price of survival,” she writes. “I want to know. Perhaps it’s because of that that I found Vera.”
It is a diminished 87-year-old woman in a pink dressing gown who finally cracks open the door of her Paris apartment to Tuszynska’s persistent knock. It’s 2003, the war is long over, and Vera Gran regards Tuszynska with suspicion. She suffers, the author tells us, from a persecution complex. For a week, they only get as far as the landing to the apartment. “We are on the threshold of trust.” Tuszynska, who counts among her mentors the great journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, has an unerring eye for the telling detail, and she uses her emotional response to a situation as a barometer. “Periodically the lights went out in the stairwell. Then my feelings of compassion grew until the lights came back on.”
Finally allowed entrance, Tuszynska finds a “dark and disturbing bunker” with stacks of yellowed newspapers, clippings, lists of bills, dried bouquets, concert photographs, musical scores, “heaped up day in, day out, successive layers like a massive tottering fortress.”
The prickly old woman in the pink dressing gown is a paranoid survivor, a woman who has lived under the weight of accusation her entire adult life. Reviled. Sentenced to a living death. It will take Tuszynska years to win her trust. There will be a cost: the story is not for the faint of heart. Vera tells her interrogator: “Now I am going to take up my pen and dip it in my blood. And you are going to listen.”
The pen is not the only weapon available to this long-suffering outcast. Under her pillow, she says:
“I keep a knife, a hammer and a screwdriver. They press their shapes into my back and the nape of my neck. I have never sold myself cheap. Never! Should I feel guilty? Guilt, always this Jewish guilt. I am guilty of nothing! What were we talking about?”
“That you can’t stand journalists.”
“Can’t stand? That’s an understatement.”
Eventually, the aged performer (she died in 2007) agreed to “collaborate” with Agata Tuszynska in telling her story. Vera Gran explains how she sang songs from before the war, to remind people in the ghetto “of another life, moment of happiness, a time when they were human beings, not hunted animals. They wept, but those tears were a relief.” The young Vera Gran sang about mimosas and blue skies to those who were starving.
She saw nothing wrong, she told Tuszynska, with practicing her profession. She had a family to support, her mother and sisters. The celebrated poet Wladyslaw Szlengel, who later died in the ghetto uprising, wrote some songs for Vera. The popular pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman wrote the music, and often accompanied Vera on piano in the Café Sztuka located a few blocks from the sentry box at the entrance to the ghetto. Loaded convoys were leaving the Umschlagplatz each day for Treblinka.
In fugue-like fashion, Tuszynska alternates Vera’s unreliable memories of that time with the confusing rumors and bold accusations arrayed against her in the 1947 trial of the citizens’ court of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, which cleared her of all charges of collaboration. Her main accuser? Szpilman, her former accompanist, whose own memoir, rendered into the film The Pianist by Roman Polanski, excises any mention of Vera Gran.
From a window in the ghetto, Vera describes how she saw the Jewish police bludgeoning the neighbors across the courtyard, dragging them off to the Umschlagplatz, the collecting depot for certain death. Though there is no other evidence, other than her own allegations, Vera later told the Shoah Foundation that this “loathsome deed” was the work of Szpilman, the pianist, her accuser. “I saw him with my own eyes. He survived the war. I want him to know that I saw him.”
Szpilman and Gran met with startlingly different fates after the war. Szpilman was celebrated for his uncanny ability to survive against all odds, for his daring escape from a Nazi transport. Gran was imprisoned, denounced as a traitor, a “Gestapo whore.” She was ultimately cleared of all charges but forever shunned as a performer. There is only circumstantial evidence of Gran’s alleged crime as well as Szpilman’s. Tuszynska has described her book as “document-fiction.” Her allegiance is to illuminating the ambiguity of survival, the unreliability of memory.
In the cluttered apartment, there are photos of Vera as a slender, dark-haired, smiling young girl in a white silk leotard. She was blessed with a sultry alto, perfect pitch, incandescent beauty.
She was born Vera Grynberg in 1916 (or 1918), probably in Russia, and grew up with her mother and two sisters (her father abandoned the family when Vera was three) first outside Warsaw then in the city itself. Her mother worked in a corset factory. Vera’s talent for performing manifested early. She was still a minor when she began performing in clubs in cosmopolitan prewar Warsaw.
“She seduced with her voice,” writes Tuszynska, “as if coming from a depth of sorrow. She was radiant with an inner light.” Vera toured all of Poland, made records, abandoned Grynberg for Gran, was compared to Garbo and Dietrich. In 1942, she decided to rejoin her family in the Warsaw ghetto. Tuszynska listens to Vera’s story, her rants. She captures their rhythms and layers them with the voices of other witnesses, such as Warsaw Ghetto historians and survivors. Vera didn’t understand the hierarchy of the ghetto. She was ashamed of the night she agreed to sing at the house of Szymonowicz, a known collaborator. He asked her on the street, “Come right away now.” The colleague she was with said: “If you want to save your skin, accept.” She did. Is wanting to survive a crime? Vera lived through the raids, her mother and sisters didn’t. She escaped and lived on the Aryan side, with her husband, a Polish doctor (who was also hiding the fact that he was Jewish).
Right after the war, Szpilman became the most influential person at Radio Warsaw. His performance of Chopin was the first program broadcast after Liberation. From her hiding place in the countryside, Vera rode back to her destroyed city on a bicycle. She searched out Szpilman, hoping to find work. He was not pleased to see her. He thought she was dead. He told her, “I heard you collaborated with the Gestapo.”
Vera was arrested. She was beaten and interrogated. Locked in a cell. Vera: “I screamed my head off! They would not listen to me. Accused of collaborating with the Occupation forces who had killed my family!” But according to Vera, the opposite was true. She hadn’t collaborated. She gathered up Jewish children dying in the street. She set up a shelter and gave charitable concerts to benefit her orphans. Why, Tuszynska asks, did so few people know about it? “I didn’t want to be known, nor bring down retribution,” Vera tells her.
Tuszynska shines a miner’s light on the poisonous historical landscape after the Occupation, when everyone had a score to settle and no one could look anyone else in the eye. (One Polish rescuer I interviewed in my family’s hometown told me, “I know people who walk with their heads bent so low their noses make a line in the sand.”)
The survivors, Tuszynska writes, “felt a need for moral purification, to make condemnations, to stigmatize.” For some, the time-tested survival instinct was to accuse someone else before they could accuse you.
I read Vera Gran with growing excitement at the voice, the author’s ability to parse moral complexities. Tuszynska’s poetic narrative with its tortured antiheroine grabbed me hard. Her reactions to uncovered historical truths — often despairing — are deeply moving.
What else had she written? In the library stacks, I found her highly unusual 1998 biography cum memoir called Lost Landscapes: In Search of IB Singer and the Jews of Poland. Tuszynska traveled the length and breadth of Poland, and as well to Tel Aviv, New York City, and Miami to remember, to rekindle a vanished world and interview its dispersed inhabitants. Why? Surely there was a personal story driving this considerable obsession.
I had a chance to sit down with Tuszynska at Café Les Éditeurs in Paris this winter. By the time we met, Tuszynska had studied up on my obsession: she knew I’d spent the past decade writing a book about Polish–Jewish reconciliation. Her first words to me, with a tone of mock astonishment and a sisterly teasing smile: “What is it with you and Poland?” Feeling instantly familiar, I answered with a similar challenge:
“What is it with you and Jews?”
“Oohh,” she said, sitting down, “You don’t know my story.”
Tuszynska was born in Warsaw in 1957, the daughter of two journalists. Her father, a well-known sports broadcaster, only used the term “Jew” in a mocking voice. There were fights between her parents, the eventual divorce, and her father’s remarriage. She always felt the outsider. “I could feel the presence of a lie but I could not locate it.”
When she was 19, her mother finally told her she was Jewish. It took at least another 10 years before Tuszynska could absorb the idea and even longer to come to terms with it. “I thought it must be something horrible,” she told me, “to be so ashamed that she could not tell me.”
Many Polish families, she points out, have tragic stories of the war — uprising, resistance, imprisonment. In her mother’s family’s story, there was nothing to brag about, nothing to cling to. “There were no heroic deaths, no patriotic examples, no sacred traditions, no hope for the future. It had to be concealed. This thing.”
From an early age, she was attracted to worlds different from her own. She gravitated to memoirs of the war and of the camps — she didn’t know why. Then, one summer while playing with other children on vacation near the ruins of the old castle in Kazimierz on the Vistula, she discovered broken pieces of stone among the ferns, on the paths, in the bushes. She would later write, “We used to piece them together, trying to reassemble a bas relief of hands, birds, books. With handfuls of leaves, we wiped off remnants of writing in a strange, incomprehensible language.”
I.B. Singer was the chronicler of that lost world of Polish Jews that so fascinated Tuszynska. She had not known of his existence until he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. She was determined to meet him, to tell him her story. She wrote him a letter and, without waiting for an answer, set off to see him. She arrived in New York on September 1, 1991. Singer had died on July 24. She placed an ad in The New York Times to find anyone and everyone who knew him. She spent a decade interviewing old people. She likes old people; in fact, she laughs, “I am obsessed with old people and their memories.”
She discovered that the New York writers who knew Singer didn’t like him at all. “He’s a pornographer,” one said. “You need a monument to Jewish martyrs,” said another, adding, “Why are you writing about degenerates?”
She revealed to none of those she interviewed, not to the Yiddish writers in New York nor the émigré Polish Jews in Miami, that she too was Jewish. “I was responsible for all the Poles,” she confided. One elderly Jewish survivor in Florida condominium assumed that Tuszynska, with her Polish accent, was looking for a job as a maid. The woman couldn’t fathom why a Pole would come ask a Jew such questions.
“I write,” Tuszynska told me, “as a Jewish daughter, as a Polish daughter, but…” she gestures with both hands, drawing them up from thighs to pelvis to her core, like roots extending to branches: “I am a Polish writer. Polish literature made me.”
Tuszynska’s memoir, The Family History of Fear, was published in 2005 and became a bestseller in France and Poland. The memoir is a portrait of two families — Polish, Jewish — how they connect, how they argue.
That compelling story (not yet available in English) is the inquiry that informs both her biography of Singer as well as her study of Vera Gran. It is the impetus behind Tuszynska’s determination to understand, as she says, “the price of survival.”
“You have to open a secret,” Tuszynska says as she sips her espresso. “You have to work it thoroughly. Every secret if it’s not opened at the right moment, it will turn against you.” At her university in Warsaw, a history professor, Zbigniew Raszewski, instilled in her the precept that “you cannot talk about anybody’s life without examining the context of their choices.”
Tuszynska spent over a decade unraveling the convoluted story of Vera Gran. She is used to being patient, to hearing stories slowly released over time. In her own life story, she told me, “The past was revealed little by little and always in whispers.”
When her memoir was published in Poland in 2005, her 80-year-old mother was terrified of what the neighbors would say. Nothing untoward happened; the book was a great success. Tuszynska received glowing reviews and hundreds of positive emails and letters. But her mother was and is still afraid. “She cannot help it. It is a legacy from the war. She cannot let go of the legacy of fear.”
It took Tuszynska many years to understand why her mother concealed her entire history from her daughter all the years she was growing up. She was finally able to accept that her mother wanted to protect her little blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter from all the pain she might have encountered because of her. “I make an effort,” Tuszynska says, “to think of this as the greatest possible expression of a mother’s love for her child.”
Tuszynska also possesses a unique perspective on the unthinkable risks Polish rescuers took when hiding Jews. If discovered (or denounced) the Germans imposed capital punishment for the entire family, the most draconian penalty in any nation in Nazi-occupied Europe. If the tables were turned, she muses, “if those Jews with families, with children had to hide Poles, I don’t think they would. I know Jewish mothers.” Her observation startles me.
These days, when Tuszynska gives author talks in Polish schools, speaking to students about her own experience growing up a hidden Jew in Poland, she urges them to contemplate their own historical context. “I say to them, ‘Don’t be ashamed. Remember this address. Ask what it means. At the end of the day … it is you. Your grandparents, your soil, your landscape.’” As an example, she points to herself: “I am blue eyes. Poland. Umshlagplatz. Treblinka. I am all of those things.”