Today I had a Polish class over Skype. My tutor is in Kraków, and I am not. I know how to say "I miss Kraków" in Polish, so I said it. I also know how to ask if there is any snow there, so I asked that. (There isn't.)
But what I really wanted to talk about was a book my tutor recommended. In Polish it is called Początek, and in English it is called The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman. The author is Andrzej Szczypiorski, and the translator is Klara Glowczeska. And as I teach my students to do, I began to read the book from the very first page, which in this case contains the author's electric biography:
Andrzej Szczypiorski was born in Warsaw in 1924. He was captured during the uprising against the Germans in 1944 and was sent to a concentration camp. After the war he became one of Poland's leading writers, with eighteen widely translated novels to his credit. Increasingly engaged in opposition to the Communist regime, he was arrested along with other Solidarity leaders upon the imposition of martial law in December 1981 and kept in confinement until the following spring. In June 1989 he was elected to the Polish Senate. He was awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1988. The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman, a bestseller throughout Europe, has been translated into fifteen languages.
I thought all this was wonderful and told my tutor so. He listened to me politely, and then said what I dreaded he would say, which was, "Okay, so you know, he is really disliked by the Polish right wing because..."
Then followed Szczypiorski's disqualifications from a slap on the back from the Polish right wing: he fought with the Communists during the Uprising, he mentioned pre-war Polish anti-Semitism in his books, he became a Calvinist, there are documents suggesting he denounced people in the 1950s... All the usual stuff that makes Polish Pretend Son yell, "You read [Konwicki, Dehnel, Szczypiorski]!?!? Who told you to read [Konwicki, Dehnel, Szczypiorski]?!?!?!
Naturally, this is part of the rich, colourful woven tapestry of internecine Polish struggles, and although it is distressing, the hatred of Poles for Poles with different politics is awe-inspiring in that they care enough to hate them. I simply cannot imagine shouting at a non-Canadian for reading, for example, Timothy Findlay's Not Wanted on the Voyage or Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale or even (snork, snork)
Madeleine L'Engel's Marian Engel's Bear. Indeed, the one and only Canadian writer I have ever actually hated is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose only writing I know of is his tasteless eulogy for his father, and that is because le petit Justin is destroying my country with his stupid COVID measures and corrupting my fellow Canadians with his diatribes against so-called "anti-vaxxers."
I have just erased a passage about the perfidy of le petit Justin as I don't want to get off topic.
To remain on topic, The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman is about Warsaw during the last German Occupation but also follows the lives of the characters who survive this Occupation into the communist era, the youngest of them up to 1981 or so. It tells a lot of hard truths, some that the Polish right don't like mentioned, like the anti-Semitism of ONR, and some that Americans would find embarrassing and even incredible, like the Jews who survived (for a time) by turning in other Jews.
It also looks at very different characters who were (or could have been) in Occupied Warsaw in 1943: a bright Jewish student; a village girl-turned-prostitute; a poor Catholic tailor suddenly rich because his Jewish boss left everything in his care; an anti-Semitic nun who risks death rescuing Jewish children; a crook who robs Jews fleeing the Ghetto; a crook who rescues Jews, and maybe not just for the money; an ethnic German working for the Polish Underground; the local German commandant; a suddenly impoverished Polish aristocrat; a mathematics professor... and, of course, the beautiful Mrs Seidenman and her youthful admirer Paweł.
"Every Canadian schoolchild should read this book," I told my tutor. "When we learned about the war, we learned it only from the Canadian, American, and British points of view."
I could be wrong, of course. In Grade 8 there may have been at least a mention of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, the German-speakers in Romania, Czech and everywhere else east of the Oder running like hell for the west, and the over 20 million Soviets who died before that. However, what I remember is VE Day-Hiroshima-Nagasaki-VJ Day-there-will-be-a-test-on-Friday. And I suppose there were things they just really didn't want to tell us because we were just kids. Could anything be worse than Auschwitz? Sadly, yes.
Incidentally, the curriculum was strong on how badly Japanese-Canadians were treated by the Canadian government (and they certainly were) and on how awful it was not to be killed immediately in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which was true), but it was weak on talking about the treatment of Canadian soldiers (like my Uncle Sandy) in the Japanese death camps, possibly because they thought we couldn't cope with the complexity of all that.
But, you know, this brings me back to thoughts of le petit Justin and his ludicrous painting of Canadians who are reluctant to get the swiftly-developed-COVID-jabs as racists and misogynists who endanger him and his children. He's my age, he's had roughly the same education: he knows better than that. But meanwhile I encourage you to read The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman (or, if you can, Początek) to find out what it might have been like for you to have been in Warsaw in 1943.
Update: A small rant. Every anglophone Canadian my age read The Diary of Anne Frank in school. And naturally many of us bragged we would have hid Anne ourselves. Some of us may even have wondered aloud--not knowing that this could mean an instant death sentence for Poles and their entire families (if not for the blonde-and-blue-eyed Dutch)--why more people didn't hide the Jews from the Nazis. Well, ask yourselves this: if your unvaccinated-with-COVID-vaccine nurse friend is fired from her job (as is happening everywhere), robbed of her savings through fines on so-called "anti-vaxxers" (as are being introduced in Quebec), and has nowhere to go, would you take her in or are you too scared of dying?
Update 2: Sincere apologies to the memories of Madeleine L'Engle and Marian Engel for getting their names mixed up!