A Polish poet and historian explores her family’s tormented history.
Growing up in postwar communist Poland, Tuszynska (Vera Gran, The Accused, 2013, etc.) “rarely heard the word ‘Jew.’ Only from my father, and then, always in a mocking tone of voice.” He believed Jews were responsible “for every unpopular law, for whatever problems he currently had at work, for the scarcity of new tires for his automobile.” Her father, a sports reporter, and her mother, an editor, separated when she was 7, and the young girl blamed herself. Her father did not love her anymore, she thought; later, she learned that her mother, in love with another man, had insisted on ending the marriage. Her father was heartbroken. Revelations did not stop there: when she was 19, her mother told her that she was Jewish. Now in her late 50s, Tuszynska embarked on a search for a past kept secret from her, delving into the lives of those “sealed behind the wall, those in photographs, those in cemeteries,” and questioning her parents, both still alive, forcing them “into the difficult task of discovering the extent to which they had dissimulated their memories.” Her mother’s reticence causes the author to resort to much speculation about her feelings or thoughts. Although at times a proliferation of characters causes confusion, Tuszynska’s memoir offers an unsettling portrait of Polish Jewry in a Catholic nation. In Lodz, “the Polish Manchester,” her mother’s relatives, although they contributed to the upkeep of the synagogue, felt themselves to be Polish patriots. Only after the Nazi invasion in 1939 did many Poles become aware of “who was what” because the Germans forced Jews to wear stars. Returning to her homeland, the author was struck forcefully by enduring anti-Semitism, “the hatred, the aggressiveness,” and “the boorishness and contempt for any sort of difference.”
A wrenching journey in search of memory and identity.