YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Virtue's carousel

Holy Week A Novel of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Jerzy Andrzejewski Foreword by Jan Gross Introduction and Commentary by Oscar Swan Ohio University Press: 150 pp., $39.95

February 18, 2007|Cynthia L. Haven | Cynthia L. Haven writes regularly for the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her "Czes{lstrok}aw Milosz: Conversations" was published last year.

IN his poem "Campo dei Fiori," Czeslaw Milosz grimly recalls the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. As Jews were massacred, the crowds just outside cavorted on sky carousels to a carnival tune:

The bright melody drowned

the salvos from the ghetto wall,

and couples were flying

high in the cloudless sky.

Jerzy Andrzejewski, a friend and fellow witness, also watched the extermination of the Warsaw ghetto and wrote grippingly about the same carousels in his novel "Holy Week." But the scene is different. As the Jews fought the German soldiers, onlookers in Krasinski Square laughed for a different reason: "In the estimation of the average person on the street, the very fact that fighting was taking place with a handful of solitary Jews made the victorious occupiers look ridiculous."

"The deserted square now seemed even wider," Andrzejewski wrote. "In its center stood two carousels not yet completely assembled, evidently being readied for the upcoming holiday. Under the cover of their wildly colored decorations stood helmeted German soldiers. A number of them were kneeling on the platform with rifles pointed toward the ghetto."

Which version was true? Both. The carousels were being set up to celebrate the upcoming Easter holiday. Andrzejewski's novel takes place in the days preceding Easter -- which was also Passover for tens of thousands of Jews. The gruesome month of fighting continued long enough for Milosz to record the scene later, when the carousels were running and filled with pleasure seekers. But the double image, emblematic of Polish indifference to the Holocaust, also shows the interplay of two great minds tuned to the same terrible event.

With the first English edition of "Holy Week" -- a tightly wound story that can be devoured in one long sitting -- we can at last discover a little-known work from one of Poland's leading 20th century novelists.

In Poland, Andrzejewski is best known as the author of "Ashes and Diamonds," made into a memorable 1958 film by Andrzej Wajda. In the West, he is best known pseudonymously, under the name "Alpha" in Milosz's "The Captive Mind." This landmark dissection of the totalitarianism mind-set portrays Andrzejewski as a compromised man longing to be a moral authority.

According to Jewish historian Isaiah Trunk, "Of all the occupied countries, the percentage of Jews saved in Poland was the smallest, since the predominant attitude was hostile, while rescue was an exception to the rule."

The Catholic Adrzejewski was one of those rescuers. Milosz, his close companion during the war years, recounts that Andrzejewski personally helped Jews in hiding and spoke out against those who would not -- at the risk of his own life.

Yet when Andrzejewski read his war stories to a circle of friends -- the first version of "Holy Week" was drafted quickly in 1943, the same year as Milosz's famous poem -- Milosz balked, feeling "every form of literature could be applied to [the events] except fiction."

"We used to feel strangely ashamed, I remember, whenever Alpha read us his stories in that war-contaminated city," he pointed out. "He exploited his subject matter too soon, his composition was too smooth. Thousands of people were dying in torture all about us; to transform their sufferings immediately into tragic theater seemed to us indecent."

The smoothness doesn't bother us today. On the contrary, "Holy Week" -- ably translated by a team of Ohio University students under the guidance of Oscar Swan -- has an immediacy and verisimilitude impossible for someone not on the scene. Andrzejewski records bystanders goggling at a dead Jew hanging over a windowsill in the besieged ghetto, while Warsaw residents elsewhere bake Easter loaves and street vendors sell baskets of violets, primroses and marsh marigolds.

Andrzejewski favors moral edginess over certainties. What happens to charitable impulses when the person you have rescued is scornful, defiant and ungrateful? How far do you push moral stances when you risk the lives of others? Should you stop a teenager from throwing his life away in a futile gesture of solidarity when so few are making any statements at all?

And what if the hero is not a hero? Andrzejewski mocks his protagonist, the self-regarding architect Jan Malecki, in ironic asides: "Although he rarely disclosed his true feelings, he thought that despite everything there should always be frankness and understanding between those closest to one another."

Nevertheless, when Malecki finds a Jewish former girlfriend named Irena in Krasinski Square during the fighting, he halfheartedly rises to the occasion, offering to take the dazed woman into the home he shares with his pregnant wife, Anna.

Los Angeles Times Articles