In 1285, after accusations of a ritual murder were directed at the Munich Jewish community, 180 Jewish men, women and children were rounded up in a synagogue and burned alive. Their names were included in a Memorbuch compiled in 1296 by Nuremberg Jews to commemorate prominent community leaders and those who had died a martyr's death. As the Jewish saying goes, "There is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and a book, in which everything is recorded."
Henryk Grynberg's Memorbuch, published in Poland this past September, is not only a memorial to Polish Jewry, whose few remaining members were forced out of Poland once again by the Communists, but also to European Jewry as a whole. With them went a great part of European civilization, of which the prominent publisher Adam Bromberg, whose story the book tells, was an example.
Conveying a life story
Though Grynberg figures as the author, for the most part it is really Bromberg who is telling his own life story. Toward the end of his life, Bromberg made a series of cassette and video recordings, which he tried to transcribe and bring together in the form of a book himself. As Grynberg notes in his introduction, Bromberg first attempted to do this with the help of a journalist, then a historian, but because so many different threads ran through the material, the project proved too difficult and was abandoned.
Fortunately, Grynberg took up the challenge himself and has managed, from those hundreds of pages and dozens of cassettes, to give us a complex portrait of a Polish Jew whose life reflected every aspect of the troubled century in that part of the world.
For context, he has interwoven historical information into Bromberg's own story. The narrative begins in the time of his childhood in the eastern borderlands of pre-war Poland, where anti-Semitic excesses were growing, which Grynberg aptly illustrates with extensive excerpts from Sejm (the Polish parliament) transcripts. We also follow the evolution of Bromberg's political views, which culminated in his adoption of Communism.
Though we learn of his experiences during the Second World War, in which he lost his entire family except one niece, this is not the book's focus. Memorbuch traces the development of Bromberg's publishing career in Communist postwar Poland, which saw its own share of anti-Semitic pogroms and persecution, and concludes with an account of the anti-Semitic purges of 1968, of which Bromberg was also ultimately a victim.
The book contains far too much interesting information to be summarized here—and by no means is it narrowly confined to Polish-Jewish issues. One of Memorbuch's main strengths is that it paints a portrait of a culture that has disappeared from the map of Europe: that of Polish Jewry, and in particular of its intellectual elite.
At the same time, because of the Jewish intelligentsia's mobility, we catch glimpses of Jewish intellectual life in Vienna, Berlin and Paris. In Poland, as elsewhere in Europe, the publishing houses were run principally by Jews; but we also learn that at Warsaw University, for example, the philosophy, mathematics, physics and economics departments had an especially strong Jewish presence—until 1968, when most were forced to leave their posts, and Poland as well.
The Jewish experience in Poland
Though most people who are familiar with postwar Polish history are aware of the significance of 1968 for Polish Jews, Grynberg's description of the events from a Jewish perspective gives readers a very graphic sense of how deeply traumatic those events really were. (Those with Polish-Jewish friends who emigrated after March 1968 will especially appreciate these insights).
In addition to a general account of the beatings, interrogations and persecution of Polish-Jewish students and faculty at the University of Warsaw, Grynberg focuses on Bromberg's dismissal as the head of Poland's largest publishing house, Polskie Wydawnictwo Naukowe (PWN, Polish Academic Press), a position he had held for 12 years.
During that time, he increased the number of PWN's publications dramatically, providing postwar Polish schools and institutions of higher education with the materials they needed but also cooperating with Western publishing houses, bringing much needed foreign currency into Poland.
A daring publishing venture
Bromberg's most controversial—and also most successful and lasting—undertaking, however, was the twelve-volume Wielka Encyklopedia PWN (The Great PWN Encyclopedia), which would fill a real gap in Polish publishing. His account of the struggles involved in carrying out this remarkable endeavor—both purely from the publishing perspective, as well as from the political one—is one of the most exciting parts of Memorbuch.
For years, no one had attempted, for political reasons, to undertake such a huge project, with more than 1000 experts working together to produce one volume every six months. After Polish President and Party Secretary Bolesław Bierut died in 1956, Bromberg, after preliminary discussions, decided to forge ahead in spite of Party wrangling over the issue and distributed "coupons" for the encyclopedia, as a form of subscription that would serve as an indicator of popular interest (Irritated Party leaders later accused him of creating a "pressure group" in this way).
Within 24 hours, Poles snapped up 100,000 coupons, which then "acquired a black market value, like dollars." Bromberg went forward with his plan, which caused him trouble only later, during the anti-Semitic campaign that followed the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Then, the entry on concentration camps, for example, was singled out as historical falsification, because it stated that 99 percent of the victims in the "extermination camps" were Jewish.
The Party leadership also complained that there were too many Jewish-related entries. As the coup de grâce, Bromberg was accused of economic sabotage in his dealings with foreign publishing houses. He was removed from his post, held for interrogations and threatened with eight years' imprisonment.
It was only after a British publisher implicated in the case intervened that Bromberg was mysteriously released. Nevertheless, he was not permitted to return to PWN and could scarcely find another job, even as a simple librarian, without which, of course, he would have been charged with "social parasitism." Eventually, after various harassment from all sides, he and most of his family emigrated in the wake of 1968.
Touching on sensitive issues
As is usually the case whenever the topic of Polish-Jewish relations is raised, Memorbuch is bound to stir up some controversy. (It is worth noting that it appeared in part thanks to financial support from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage). Particularly provocative are comments about a Kielce pogrom and the Poles' role during the Second World War.
By including the description of a pre-war pogrom in Kielce from a speech made by a Jewish senator in 1936, Grynberg throws into question the nature of a pogrom a decade later in that same city, which is popularly thought to have been instigated by Communist provocateurs.
As Senator Schorr's summary of events shows, however, it was quite easy to see how normal Polish peasants, "armed with clubs wrapped with [barbed-]wire, topped by iron balls," were fully capable of looting and vandalizing Jewish shops in that city. They broke into the house of a poor Jewish shoemaker and murdered him with an axe; his wife died the next day in the hospital, leaving eight orphaned children behind. An hour after the excesses had already finished, "the police came to the city's aid."(p 89) If this could happen in 1936, we are left to conclude that there would be little need for Communist provocateurs in Kielce just ten years later.
Another sensitive subject is the question of the Polish role during the Second World War. Poles often point to portrayals of their nation as collaborators as a great injustice, such as in Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List, in which a Polish woman is shown barking commands on the platform at Jews as they arrive at Auschwitz, or in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, where a photograph of Auschwitz is identified as "a Polish concentration camp."
Poles, who lost about 20 percent of their population during the war, and who waged what was arguably the most impressive resistance movement in Europe, certainly deserve a great deal of respect.
Grynberg includes a particularly damning statement on this subject, sure to incite some Poles' ire. At a meeting where students were sharing impressions from their summer travels, one student who had traveled to Israel, where he had an uncle and cousins, was asked what Polish Jews there had told him about Poles:
"He said they told him that before the war it was difficult to live in Poland, and during the war it was difficult to save yourself, because Jews were refused shelter for the most part, and that the worst thing was that even those who were able to find shelter were turned in, which is why most of those who were in hiding also perished."(p 325)
History or fiction?
Some Polish readers might also point to the method Grynberg employed in writing the book as a means of manipulating the raw material in order to relay his message about the Jewish experience in Poland—or in Europe, for that matter.
As a historian, my major criticism of the book also involves Grynberg's method, one which I suspect would raise most historians' eyebrows. (It might very well have also raised Bromberg's own eyebrows, but Grynberg was safe on that count, since he only received the materials five years after Bromberg had died). Grynberg's message, however, is not the focus of my complaint.
Grynberg attempts to defuse historians' complaints by calling Memorbuch a "novel" (powieść) in his introduction. This is deceptive, however, because although he is the author, the book is really an autobiography—though exactly to what extent, the readers cannot really tell. We cannot determine where Bromberg's own words end and where Grynberg's begin. This method has turned what could have been a primary source into a secondary one, and a slippery one at that.
Though Grynberg deserves credit for putting Bromberg's life, and that of Polish Jewry as a whole, into its broader European context, his main technique for doing so becomes rather pedantic as the book progresses. The first time he provides a summary of the history of the Jews from a given city—enumerating the subsequent pogroms, exiles and returns since the Middle Ages—it is effective.
This method loses much of its impact, however, and even borders on the tedious, when he repeats it for every European city ever mentioned in the book—especially in the chapter chronicling the Brombergs' belated honeymoon trip through Europe, visiting publishing houses in Berlin, Duesseldorf, Brussels, Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, Munich, Salzburg, Graz, Vienna and Bratislava.
Grynberg's prose is a real pleasure to read, with only two relatively minor stylistic shortcomings. There are some confusing leaps in the narrative in places, making it even more difficult to keep track of the book's many characters. Memorbuch also seems to unravel at the end, when Bromberg's own life after 1968 is overshadowed by rambling details about the fates of what appear to be random Polish Jews during that period, giving the impression that Grynberg included stories of people he knew himself, perhaps, just to fill up the rest of the book (Grynberg left Poland in 1967, and since that time has lived in New York).
Memorbuch—whether it is the creation of Bromberg, Grynberg or a combination of the two—is a remarkable book. Despite its murky status as a "fictional document," it should be read by anyone who would like to gain a broader perspective on Polish-Jewish relations, or, as Grynberg tries to stress, on Jews' fate throughout European history, of which his account of one Polish Jew's life is just one tiny—but representative—example.
Christina Manetti, 8 January 2001
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