A month ago, during heady and hectic New York days, I reported on my reading of And Yet I Still Have Dreams (A Story of a Certain Loneliness), the strange and unique book written by Polish author Joanna Wiszniewicz from her interviews to “Alex,” a man who was an adolescent during the Warsaw ghetto years, who lived his own coming-of-age and transition from protected boy from a well-heeled Jewish family in Warsaw, through the Warsaw ghetto years and then in different camps (Majdanek, Budzyń, Auschwitz, and later Valhingen) – going from being 12 years old to 18 in such places. My earlier report was written during the reading of the first part of the book, and I kept thinking, while finishing reading it, that I absolutely needed to write a second, more complete, review. At least for myself, and for some friends who read this blog and might get interested, or for the unknown person who might stumble here.
It is not an easy book to review. It is also not an easy book to read. Alex, the “first voice”, the interviewee who tells the story, avoids very self-consciously the trappings of Holocaust literature; he addresses the first-hand experience of being a boy, then a youngster and finally a young man – coming of age in the midst of the collapse of a world – but avoiding also that simple, straightforward description.
Very young Alex is naïve, exactly in the way most 12 year old boys are, but perhaps even more so from having been raised in a quite protective environment. He knows that. He sees how after his father’s death (around the beginning of the war), his forceful and active mother takes over his administrative job at a hospital, and manages to secure a measure of “protection” for him, for her whole family – a protection that would of course erode during the ghetto years, but which nonetheless strongly helped the boy Alex to live those first ghetto years relatively unscathed.
Her protection extends to other members of the large family – uncle, grandfather, etc. The prewar world survives for a while, in an odd way, in the ghetto. And this is the first fantastic and amazing aspect of the book: it depicts in a rich way, through the (memory) eyes of a young child (remembered by an old American, the same person but in a totally different universe, thinking half a century later who he really was back then), the strong non-homogeneity of ghetto life, the stark differences between social classes somehow continuing along the ghetto, the attempt of a 12-year old to go on, without thinking too much of the consequences of little acts.
This contrasts sharply with usual Holocaust literature or movies. In many of them we see extremely mature reflections – with the normal primacy, naivety, directness, firstness of experience being overshadowed by the tertiary, reflected, mature, contrasted, wounded voice of the narrator. Primo Levi in the camp is told by Primo Levi the survivor, and it is the harsh, detached, unromantic tone of the survivor that we hear. For all the importance and greatness of other accounts, this was (for me) the first time I could read an unassuming, direct account – a phenomenological précis – of those years.
Life as usual (and very much not as usual – but it is these “as usual” features that are unique in this book) for the young boy: getting angry with his grandmother, telling her she is ignorant (and then feeling the remorse for having done that), growing up getting involved with other young men whom he admires, but who are vain (as all young men of that age) and admire… German soldiers. In the typical confusion of young age, those Jewish adolescents, who know perfectly well what Germans (or non-Jewish Poles) may do to them in the ghetto if they “trespass” some lines, at the same time have admiration for some of those Germans, with their shiny and elegant uniforms – one of them (who would go on to become a fighter during the uprising) even boasts of “being friend” with a German soldier in Warsaw – a young 15-year old Jew being a “friend” of a German soldier in Warsaw in 1942! Of course, these infatuations are exactly what must have happened – the “dual realities” we all live at those ages, but transferred to the confined and rarified atmosphere of the ghetto.
As the war continues, the earlier protection layers erode (although some remnants linger – like the fact that in a camp the Polish peasants would sell smuggled food to the inmates – and of course those who had money (or connections) in the “outside world” would have strong advantages. Alex had both – and at some times somebody “who knew his grandfather who…” proffers protection – extremely weak protection in those circumstances, of course, but still protection.
The details of the stories, the fact that they sound so specific and yet so universal, and the fact that the “point of view” is somehow allowed to evolve (like our own evolution in perspective from age 12 to age 18), to inflect, to transform itself – and is not post-coded into the voice of a disenchanted, wounded man (as in other accounts) is perhaps what impressed me most. Alex tells stories that were contradictory (for instance, people saying constantly “we will not survive this war” yet making plans for “after the war” – just like our own frequent and important contradictions in our own “normal” lives) and wonders a little about the presence of those contradictions – quarrels between his grandfather (a prominent lawyer in prewar Poland) and his former employees – their devotion to his family (the class system continued for a long while inside the ghetto and the camps) – all that salt of life, or meanders of memory and knowledge.
This is an extremely non-linear account. The point of view keeps meandering, going back and forth, enriching itself and forgetting how it did so – it is not the point of view “at infinity” from the survivor’s perspective.
The “afterwar” years’ account is also fascinating. At liberation, in French-occupied Germany, Alex first meets North African soldiers of the French army – who allow him and the other former inmates to pillage a German little town – they have the German population leave and allow them to take over. Alex tells the story of how they utterly destroyed the German dwellers’ pretty houses, how they themselves acted with utter hatred – he does not offer judgment but rather allows us to ponder the emptiness and resentfulness they must have felt. Then he is slowly both enchanted to be alive and well (a young survivor with no family and no country, enjoying having girlfriends and going to concerts in occupied Germany, somehow rebuilding himself) but at the same time ashamed of himself (not clear why), and wanting to be a normal European young man – detaching himself from Jewish identification.
Alex’s telling the story to the author Joanna Wiszniewicz (wonderful, I think, in her allowing that unique voice to emerge) was a difficult process. He did not want to speak about those events for decades, he emigrated soon to the United States, studied at City College in New York, and wanted to build a totally new life for himself in his new country. For many decades, he completely refused to identify as uniquely Jewish – he wanted to see himself as “American”. When people asked him where was he from he would say “Jew from Poland” – he also did not feel “just Polish” (the story of two opposed lines in his family, some of them very integrated and feeling very Polish, some not – is later reflected in himself).
However, later in life, about 20 years ago, something made him want to go back to that fundamental part of his formation, of his youth. That is not clearly surmised from the book. He travels to Poland, is interviewed by Joanna Wiszniewicz, a first book (in Polish) is written from that interview, then much later, in 2004, a translation to English by Regina Grol. Alex refuses to let his full name appear in the book, he explicitly claims he does not want his name to be associated with “Shoah business” as he calls it. Yet he gave the interviews (the author says however that she had to almost entirely rewrite the first version of the book, as he claimed it did not reflect his voice back then – she says she had to record six more tapes of interviews and let him read large tracts of the corrected versions before he approved – and even then without his full name!).
I wonder what could have brought a man in his sixties or seventies to engage in that harsh, deep and serious revision of his own earlier life – after decades of having shunned those accounts. I imagine the conversations with the author must have been extremely demanding – and her editorial work to go from the raw material to this book surely was as demanding, if not more, than the conversations themselves.
The end result is one of the best documents ever written of the memory of a man of mature age of his early years, growing up (slowly) in the middle of a brutal age – and allowing the perspective to continually evolve along the way. A phenomenological feat, among many other things.