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A testimony to survival

Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After, Henryk Grynberg, Translated from the Polish by Alicia Nitecki, Penguin: 276 pp., $14 paper Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts From the Warsaw Ghetto, Edited by Michal Grynberg, Translated from the Polish and Yiddish by Philip Boehm, Metropolitan Books: 512 pp., $35

January 12, 2003|Ruth Franklin | Ruth Franklin is associate literary editor of the New Republic.

Toward the end of Henryk Grynberg's story "I Am From Auschwitz," a woman who survived the Holocaust laments the lack of interest that her children and grandchildren take in her stories of World War II. "Now, there are books, films, monuments," she says. "Now, we don't grate on them, now, we don't bother them, because we're not here anymore."

Are works of art about the Holocaust indeed capable of replacing the actual memories of survivors? This question is a familiar one: The film "Schindler's List," to give just one example, was criticized for its substitution of a more palatable Nazi for the brutes under whom most Jews suffered, since audiences might take Steven Spielberg's version as gospel. Henryk Grynberg, a Holocaust survivor himself, has a unique solution: He strives in his fiction to produce a stringently authentic voice. In "Drohobycz, Drohobycz" (originally published in Poland in 1997), he adheres as closely to real life as a writer of fiction possibly can.

The English version of Grynberg's book bears the subtitle "True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After," and at first glance the "stories" appear to be literal transcriptions of oral testimony: Each bears a dedication to a specific man or woman, who narrates the events of his or her life in the first person. But in a preface to the Polish edition, left out of the English version, Grynberg explained that although the stories are "rooted in conversations with actual people, they are not interviews, and the author is entirely responsible for their content." This is fiction, but fiction with a distinct awareness of its relation to reality.

More monologues than narratives, the extraordinary pieces in Grynberg's book are told in a rambling, conversational style that is astonishingly similar to the way many Holocaust survivors actually speak. These monologues seem to operate on their own terms, paying little heed to literary devices or structure. On closer examination, however, the skill of the author is apparent.

The title story, for instance, appears simply to recount the family saga of one Dr. Leopold Lustig, but Grynberg has subtly shaped it into a group portrait of the Jews of the Galician town of Drohobycz. It begins with a lengthy description of an apartment building built by Lustig's great-grandmother. On the ground floor lived Judge Drozdowski, "whom the Soviets deported to Siberia"; the widow Mrs. Mermelstein; and the Jolleses. Upstairs are Great-Aunt Hanna and her husband, Josek, who have cats, but no children, "because he neglected his gonorrhea"; Great-Aunt Yetka, "the youngest, the prettiest, and vain"; grandmother Pesia, "with my grandfather whose life she was poisoning"; and three aunts. The reason for this almost biblical catalog of ancestors and descendants becomes clear several pages later:

"Josek Sternbach went to Bronica with the handicapped, and Hanna in the first transport to Belzec. Yetka in the second. Mania and Klara were taken to Bronica with everyone from the roof-tiling plant. Rauchfleisch hid Tonia in a suburb of Lwow with his two sisters.... Mrs. Mermelstein went with her children to Belzec. So did the Munzers, the Jolleses, the Josefbergs, as well as the Altbachs. Slowacki Street 17 was a two-story house like most buildings in Drohobycz."

The concluding sentence, an apparent non sequitur, serves as a jarring reminder that of an entire apartment building full of people, only the narrator and his Aunt Tonia have survived the war.

Although each story is narrated by a different person with a distinct voice, this uninflected, almost monotonic style characterizes the entire collection. There are no histrionics here; the most horrific events are narrated without pause even for breath. All but two of the stories are told by women, and Grynberg seems to be especially sensitive to the rhythms of female voices. Although three of the protagonists describe similar experiences as young girls in hiding in Ukraine, the brutal and often contradictory details of each story make it impossible to generalize about their experiences. In "Escape From Boryslaw," the narrator seeks refuge with kind Ukrainians who feed her well, but the girl in the next story is treated miserably by the locals and finds solace only among other Jews hiding in a forest. She comes upon the corpse of a woman with a loaf of bread sticking out of her jacket. "I picked up that bread soaked in blood," she says. "I have never admitted that to anyone until now."

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