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The extraordinary, controversial story of Vera Gran, beautiful, exotic prewar Polish singing star; legendary, sensual contralto, Dietrich-like in tone, favorite of the 1930s Warsaw nightclubs, celebrated before, and during, her year in the Warsaw Ghetto (spring 1941–summer 1942) . . . and her piano accompanist: Władysław Szpilman, made famous by Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film The Pianist, based on Szpilman’s memoir.
Following the war, singer and accompanist, each of whom had lived the same harrowing story, were met with opposing fates: Szpilman was celebrated for his uncanny ability to survive against impossible odds, escaping from a Nazi transport loading site, smuggling in weapons to the Warsaw Ghetto for the Jewish resistance.
Gran was accused of collaborating with the Nazis; denounced as a traitor, a “Gestapo whore,” reviled, imprisoned, ultimately exonerated yet afterward still shunned as a performer . . . in effect, sentenced to death without dying . . . until she was found by Agata Tuszyñska, acclaimed poet and biographer of, among others, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel laureate (“Her book has few equals”—The Times Literary Supplement).
Tuszyñska, who won the trust of the once-glamorous former singer, then living in a basement in Paris—elderly, bitter, shut away from the world—encouraged Gran to tell her story, including her seemingly inexplicable decision to return to Warsaw to be reunited with her family after she had fled Hitler’s invading army, knowing she would have to live within the ghetto walls and, to survive, continue to perform at the popular Café Sztuka.
At the heart of the book, Gran’s complex, fraught relationship with her accompanist, performing together month after month, for the many who came from within the ghetto and outside its walls to hear her sing.
Using Vera Gran’s reflections and memories, as well as archives, letters, statements, and interviews with Warsaw Ghetto historians and survivors, Agata Tuszyñska has written an explosive, resonant portrait of lives lived inside a nightmare time, exploring the larger, more profound question of the nature of collaboration, of the price of survival, and of the long, treacherous shadow cast in its aftermath.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Agata Tuszyńska was born in Warsaw in 1957 and learned at the age of nineteen that she was Jewish, a secret kept by her mother, who survived the Nazi occupation of Poland. Tuszyńska graduated from the Academy of Drama and Theatrical Arts in Warsaw. She is the author of six collections of internationally translated poetry and a biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer. She is the recipient of the Polish PEN Club Ksawery Pruszyński Prize and a grant from the Fulbright Foundation. She lives in Toronto, Warsaw, and Paris.
Read an Excerpt
She picked up the receiver but didn’t speak.
She picked up the receiver but didn’t speak at first. She breathed—with increasing difficulty, and more loudly—as time passed. She was expecting curses and insults. She waited; they will track her down, they will find her, they’ll finish her off. She won’t give in. She concentrated all her energy on that.
“I’d like to see you, Vera.”
“I can’t leave the house.”
“I can come to you.”
“It’s not possible.”
“Out of the question.”
“They’ll break in and steal everything.”
“Are you crazy or what? Do I have to explain it to you? Who am I dealing with? Shhhh . . . keep quiet, please! They’re listening in, and we’re being taped. You know very well who I’m talking about. They’re spying on me, they want to get rid of me. I’m followed everywhere. The concierge is in cahoots with them. They are always breaking in, when I’m in the bathroom or when I fall asleep. They carry off what they can, what is most valuable, what is dearest to me. They steal, they ransack, they burglarize me. Without any scruples. There’s no question of my leaving the apartment. They are always watching me.”
HE is the most dangerous, whose name she never mentions. Sometimes she calls him the Brute.
“I want to write a book about you.”
“I’m not afraid. They’ve already made up so many lies about me. You have to think of me as Mister K., the one from Kafka . . .”
“Madame K. . . .”
“Madame, Madame . . . !!! It’s my skin we are talking about! You still don’t understand, you can’t understand anything. You numbskull!”
“Vera is sorry. Very, very. Please . . . please excuse me. When I’m having a fit, I become an unbearable old lady!”
After weeks of negotiation, in the spring of 2003 I was granted the honor of meeting her at the door of her apartment.
It was an elegant neighborhood of Paris, the sixteenth, around the Eiffel Tower. After climbing up one flight, I knocked. An inscription, in French, on the door: Knock Loudly! An old woman, not very tall, in a pink dressing gown, opened the door a crack. She didn’t trust herself, nor me. A gray chignon coming undone with protruding wisps, a gleam in her eyes, and her right hand leaning on a crutch.
She opened the door a little more. She blocked the dark interior with her body. A chair had already been placed on the landing. She looked at me with suspicion. Her soft hands moved nimbly. “I am casting a spell. I love casting spells.” With these gestures she didn’t arouse pity. She tried to bring out a second chair by opening the door as little as possible. The inside of her bunker, dark and disturbing. A hideout. On the right, I could see written on the wall, also in French: Thief, thief, put back everything you took, especially the blue poncho . . . I couldn’t manage to make out any more at first glance. Her hair, parts of her dressing gown, and her hands quivered. She sat down. We both sat down.
She handed me a tape recorder, even though I had mine. She would keep warning me: “Record it, or else you will forget what they are saying—or worse, what you yourself have said! RECORD IT!”
Her confidences were dull gray, like ashes. Periodically the lights went out in the stairwell. Then my feelings of compassion grew until the lights came back on. A moment of light—the harshest words, the most biting, the most sinister and revealing, until the poignant moment when the lights dimmed. There were several encounters like this, on the edges of darkness.
“You want to reach right into my soul. Just like that. You think it’s normal, and that I should agree completely. Just because you feel like it. Because you thought of it. You have no conscience, no heart, you scribblers. Not a penny’s worth of consideration. Contemptible!
“You Polish girls, you are so insolent, it’s in your nature. You are odiously arrogant. Here she shows up, she wants an interview. And she’s not the only one.
“I don’t ask anyone in. I see nobody. You are the only one, and afterward, I always regret it. I regret that you’ve seen what you saw. I don’t have any confidence. You have a strange professional bias: cruelty, no compassion.”
“That’s what you think?”
“Yes, insolent. Insensitive, and not an ounce of compassion for your milk cow. You want to milk me, you take my milk. I can’t even kick over the pail. Give it a good kick to spill everything out. Or take back my treasures. I would have liked that, but it’s already too late. I’ve already spoken. Why did I allow this to happen? I don’t know. Out of loneliness, perhaps.”
We spent a week on the landing. White chairs. Uncomfortable. Tiles on the floor and faded paint on the walls.
It was a place of passage. We were on the threshold of trust. A preface to a relationship.
And then one day I knocked, as usual, and she cracked open the door. Timidly, almost excusing herself, but with a determined gesture, she pulled me inside. I squeezed through a narrow hallway to a room difficult to describe. She made an impatient gesture, pointing to a chair. I can’t recall much beyond the darkness, the stifling and oppressive air.
“I’ve made a pact with the dust. I won’t disturb it and it won’t trouble me. It’s capable of feeling pity. It really is. My enemies work tirelessly. I recently heard a radio program about the Stasi. That’s my life.”
She moved around cautiously, she navigated between the furniture and piles of cardboard boxes and stacks of newspapers. Barely fifty centimeters from the bed to the table, the chair to the refrigerator; a little farther, a path worn through columns of stacked papers (newspaper clippings, reviews, manuscripts . . . ) led up to the hallway, crowded with suitcases, clothing, dried‑up house plants, piles of accessories either useless or indispensable. Her home was the size of an average bunker in the ghetto (when does it stop, calculating everything in terms of cost—for her hideout, the price of survival, the money extorted by blackmailers?); if this place were emptied out, several people could hide here. The books were falling off the shelves, squeezed together, amassing in the stagnant air.
I had trouble staying there even for a few hours. For months she hadn’t left this hideout. For years, if you believed her distorted view of time and reality.
“It’s not about you. You are a tool. The ear and the pen, the extension of my hand and my eyes—you are keeping a record of my past. The role doesn’t please you, I can see from the face that you are making. But we don’t have any time. We don’t have any choice. Either it’s me on my terms, or else it’s silence.”
Hanging over the table was a lamp, the shade like a flower with translucent petals of a tree from Israel. Fragile like fragments of parchment, looking like shells. Moneysworth, that’s what she called them; that’s how she wanted to remember them after lugging them from the desert through Ben Gurion Airport to Orly. She fell in love with the lamp. She fell in love easily with anything that didn’t feel human. She painstakingly arranged the little sprigs in a crown. The lamp was a light. Apparently she once saw no danger in it.
Today it’s always dark, the shutters are closed.
How is it possible for a person who has spent half her life on stage not to turn the lights on at home? She willingly lived in twilight.
“It’s because of them, it’s them. Because they installed everything here, I had to get rid of all the lights. The twilight came, I had to get used to it. Their light is stronger. It’s special—to enable them to record and film. I can’t always stay in the light of a movie camera. Do you understand?”
. . .
“What was the most important thing about singing for you?”
“I wanted to stir emotions. I sang for other people, not for myself. I gave, but I also received from the public an outpouring of emotion and involvement.
“I must have been conceited. That goes with the unthinking nature of youth. I wanted to give, share, I had everything in abundance. I also wanted—and I can’t deny it—to be admired. I had been singing since I was very little. It made me feel good, people paid attention to me. I was in a hurry to go on stage. To work. They were waiting for me. The public. Who were they? What, are you also going to throw that up at me? The rich people in the ghetto, the black marketers, guys from the Jewish police, all those to whom fate had given a second chance, who had struggled for it and won, who refused to end up as victims, or as a bar of soap. I didn’t want to become soap. I had to sing. To show my worth, so that they would know it, so the game of life could continue. We lacked for nothing, it’s true, but do I have to justify myself forever? I worked in order to eat. I received nothing for free. I worked hard.”
“Under my pillow 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.”
“What was the most important thing in life for you?”
“Mother. Always. I did everything so as not to hurt her feelings. I know that she was always afraid that someone would harm me. Take advantage of her child. She was smart enough never to say it to me, but she died of fear. I can’t remember any longer when I promised her that I would never change my faith. She was a believer. Which I could tolerate. I watched her with emotion as she lit the candles on Fridays, cupping her hands, and praying in a low voice. I will always picture her with her arms folded and her hands open above the flames. A long time ago, I rebelled, I screamed at her, and I was angry. The Jews, the language, the religion! It’s only now that it awakens a tenderness in me. I kept my promise even though there’s not an ounce of faith in me.”
“Is your life fulfilled?”
“I don’t understand what that means, a life that’s fulfilled.
“There was no time for dreams. I was carried by a wave, it swept me along, it began with a success that I wasn’t prepared for. Then it went further, carried me higher. I crashed many times, but I always recovered from my fall. I don’t know why I picked myself up again. What’s the use of such a long life? I didn’t find any relief with the Liberation. They wouldn’t let me forget. They have all forgotten, but me, I don’t have the right. They reproach me, they want to bury me alive, because I know something that threatens them. I know. They are on tenterhooks. It’s a relay race of slanderers that has lasted sixty years already. Now everything is distorted. The merchandise is rotten. You would think that I have descended into Alzheimer’s.
“I know a psychologist in America who asked me one day, ‘What do you feel, when you come from the stage back to your dressing room and nobody is waiting for you?’ That was the first time that someone realized, understood that there could be an open grave dug there. The hole into which I fall once the dressing-room door is closed. Most people have someone with whom they can share their lives; they are mirrored in the eyes of the other person. For a long time my mother played that role. But she is no longer there. She hasn’t been there for years. I remain alone. I take off my dress, my makeup. I cast aside my boa. I sit without moving in the easy chair. After the thunderous applause, the bravos and encores, the silence prevails. I am not reflected in admiring eyes—I cease to exist. The difference is brutal. The top and the bottom. The euphoria is the height I fall from. It’s painful. I’m afraid of ending the performance, because I know what is waiting for me.
“I have had so many joys. I knew how to appreciate them. I am humble concerning destiny. I know how to say thank you. I don’t know whom to thank because I believe in nothing, but I say thank you. It seems that I was pretty, but I wasn’t aware of it. It’s only now on rereading the old reviews that I notice it. It’s repeated often: ‘She is beautiful, beautiful.’ But was I intelligent or not? I believed that I wasn’t stupid.”
She was seated on her bed, leaning over. As if keeping vigil over her fear, her hands clasped around her knees. The television screen threw an intermittent light on her face.
She was at home. In her hiding place. Still in the ghetto, fifty years later. She knew very well that she had to hide. The danger was lying in wait, behind every step. Everybody was suspect.
“ ‘You are not dead!?’ I heard the astonishment and the dread in this voice. I had just arrived from Babice near Warsaw, where I had been hiding after getting out of the ghetto. ‘You are not dead . . .’ That’s how I was received a few days after Liberation, in January 1945, by Szpilman, my accompanist during my time in the ghetto, my colleague from the Café Sztuka. He categorically refused to employ me on the radio. ‘They say that you were working for the Gestapo!’
“For days on end I don’t open my mouth. I’ve forgotten that I even had a voice. I can’t manage to drag myself out of this place. Curious Jewish women ask me how I manage. How do I manage? I cut myself in half. The sick half stays in bed, the healthy half gets up and takes care of the sick one. It’s difficult for one to follow the other. I tried having some help, but they never stopped stealing from me. It’s a miracle that I’m still alive. But that’s what fate decreed. I’ve lived a long time, too long.”
“Vera, what do you think about the most often?”
“That people are bad and I hate them, that I am alone.
“I have to record, and then when I have the time, I will TRANSCRIBE everything . . . I still don’t know how to use a recording machine.”
She turns it on and clicks it off, then turns it on again. Some background noises. A voice.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xi
1 She picked up the receiver but didn't speak 3
2 She had promised me her dress 15
3 It was a massive building 45
4 What is the taste of hunger? 65
5 She left the Jewish quarter on August 2, 1942 97
6 You were working with the Gestapo! 115
7 "I can tell you a few things" 136
8 The codes of survival inside the ghetto and on the outside 153
9 "In the above deposition, I have told only the truth" 171
10 She never called him "my pianist" 189
11 "The Jews dreamed of having their own Mata Hari" 202
12 To the Ministry of Public Security 216
13 The train from Marseille pulled into the Gare de Lyon 234
14 They threatened to attend the performance wearing the striped pajamas of the camps 250
15 It's the last letter 268
16 She's happy when I bring records of her singing 280
17 It was to Lailly-en-Val, in the vicinity of Orléans 291
December 12, 2007: The Burial Place 300
What People are Saying About This
“Darkly absorbing . . . shrewd . . . a probing, atmospheric study of the ghetto’s moral ambiguities . . . sharply etched . . . In Charles Ruas’s skillful translation, Tuszynska’s prose conveys Gran’s story in brisk, evocative montage while, appropriately, leaving open enigmatic gaps. She finds no bright line of truth—just subtle shades of gray that are revealing of a nightmarish time.”
“Renders the World War II years in great detail, but the meat of the book lies in the accusation that Gran collaborated with the occupied forces in Warsaw and her vigorous, lifelong self-defense. . . . A great choice for Gran devotees or World War II enthusiasts.”