by Susan Reimer-Torn
BORN IN POLAND, 1935, to a secular Jewish family, Hanna Krall survived the war hidden in a cupboard. She has since become a revered Polish journalist. While she has never denied her origins, she sees herself as a chronicler of human stories rather than Jewish ones.
In the mid-1980s, Krall was considered by many to be her country’s leading author of true-life stories. But her life was at a standstill: She had fallen out of grace with the Communist regime, her books were blacklisted, she was broke and depressed. She had one wish — to visit her daughter in Canada. Out of the blue, she received a phone call asking her to ghostwrite a Polish-Israeli woman’s Holocaust survival story. The caller offered Krall the precise sum she needed to make the trip.
After accepting the assignment and visiting her daughter, Krall met her subject, Izolda R., in Haifa, and fell under the spell of this still-beautiful woman who had, Krall wrote, “a kind of irresistible survivor’s power.”
But the sensibilities of the two women could not have been more different. Izolda saw her story as a melodramatic Hollywood epic, while Krall, who was already famous for her minimalism, had a radical “less is more” approach to writing.
“I can tell you how for years the sparks would fly. But Izolda is not the only woman who knows how to fight for what she wants,” Krall recalls in my recent conversation with her through an interpreter over Skype.
The two women’s different brands of personal power finally fused, after years of argument, in the pages of Chasing the King of Hearts, one of several of Hanna Krall’s books to be translated into English and published in the U.S. (2017, The Feminist Press). It is a compilation of short, staccato vignettes that go back and forth in time.
Towards the end of the book, we learn of its origins in Krall’s unembellished, oddly rhythmic prose.
Izolda is lucky; the Americans are making a film at the Jerusalem airport about a hijacked Israeli plane, starring Elizabeth Taylor. She rides out to the airport. They don’t want to let her in. She explains to the officer in charge of security that she has to speak at once to the actress. The officer wants to know what about. About life — life that will make a great film. Taylor could play the lead. The officer looks at the number on her arm. My father died there…he says. There, you see, she says — and I stepped right up to Dr. Mengele.
The officer discourages her from talking to the movie star and advises her to start with a book instead. You need to find a good writer.
ON PAPER, Krall matched all of Izolda’s criteria: She is a native Polish speaker with an established reputation. She has been acclaimed for her 1986 book, Shielding the Flame, in which she tells the story of Mark Edelman, the last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. She is even good friends with the eminent filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, who would surely know how to shape such a book for Hollywood.
Yet their “literary tastes were so dramatically different,” Krall explains. “She was sentimental, wordy, emotional, always wanting it bigger. I have always known that the only way to tell such a story is with austerity and great emotional calm, even detachment.”
Apparently Izolda was as extravagant in her disappointment in Krall as in her self-importance. Krall says, “She wanted something that would cover an American coffee table. She rejected what I gave her, calling it a little booklet.”
The first iteration, entitled Izolda R. Wins the War, was an unhappy compromise between Izolda’s drama and Krall’s minimalism and never made it to publication. Years later, Krall and Izolda sat down together again, this time with a group of arbitrators who would determine that Izolda would tell her story and Krall would write it in her own way, without interference.
“I am not the weaker of the two,” Krall says, “but still, it was never easy.”
In our conversation, Krall pointed things out that a reader would not know. She said that their arguments erupted over small details. Krall refers to a vignette in which she describes Izolda, then in possession of a false identity, spending hours practicing how to position a handbag like an Aryan woman rather than a Jew. “Izolda told me she carried a cheap pigskin bag. I wanted her to have something far more elegant. She went livid, screaming, ‘Give me back my handbag.’”
AFTER HEARING THIS, I wondered: Given Krall’s minimalism, where was her allegiance to the unembellished truth? This was, after all, not a novel, so why not leave Izolda with the handbag she happened to have, the one to which she was apparently so attached? I realized that with Izolda now dead, I was getting only one side of a fascinating story. To what extent did Krall give us Izolda and the events of her life as they were, unfiltered through her own sensibilities and perceptions?
Ironically, Krall recalls how Izolda’s lavish style of storytelling was anchored in an unusual memory for details of her own, even as she accuses her of unnecessary embellishment. Izolda tells Krall of stepping up to Mengele and saying something to him that made him laugh, “a loud, friendly laugh that shows the gap between his two front teeth. Diastema…That kind of gap is called a diastema.” Krall, always the meticulous fact-checker, does a little research. She discovers that not only did Mengele have a diastema, his curiosity about it prompted his fascination with genetics. We are left sharing the author’s reluctant intimation that Izolda had a photographic memory and was perhaps as much ( if not more) a truthful chronicler as an alleged drama queen.
Chasing the King of Hearts illustrates Krall’s guiding dictum, “The richer the material, the simpler the style should be.” Without commentary or adjectives, relying on a sparse arrangement of facts, Krall fulfilled her commitment to transmit “the truest of all truths.” She compares her technique to that of Mondrian in a painting called “New York” that consists of vertical and horizontal lines. “Just as these lines are art, so art can consist of simple sentences without ornament.”
A scene in which, in the presence of a friend, Izolda is raped by a policeman, is characteristically sparse. “So he turns to Izolda and she already knows what to do. She doesn’t wail and doesn’t struggle. The acquaintance looks discreetly away. The policeman buttons his pants and the two women go home.”
The understated style succeeds in telegraphing an unadorned interior landscape. Izolda’s anti-heroic inner life, eschewing complexity for determination, is reduced “to what it is and no more” by the unwavering directness of the language. The flat understatement stands in for Izolda’s state of mind — detached, determined, singularly focused. The writerly technique communicates, and to some extent determines, Izolda’s character. We have no way of knowing Izolda’s own feeling about that portrayal.
IZOLDA’S toughness, her choices, her post-war life with its increasing isolation, continue to intrigue Krall. Today, she equates Izolda’s grandiosity and stubbornness with qualities that helped her survive. “It is the same strength and the same weakness. She decided to live through the war because she had to help her husband survive. You can see in the book how she did not care about anything else, not her mother, never a greater cause.”
Krall goes on to comment on one of the book’s many ironies. “The husband whose survival kept Izolda going leaves her after the war. She kept on telling him he was only alive because of her. That was not in fact true. He got sick of hearing it. Eventually, she was estranged from her daughter, too. As the years went by, she was going blind and deaf and more and more alone.”
Speaking of the differences between women, Krall mentions her own fascination with “the contrast between Izolda and her close friend Janka Tempelhof. Izolda is crazy, making decisions without thinking them through at all, while Janka, who has read everything, understands and knows. Of those two, only Izolda survived the war. That’s not proof of the superiority of madness over reason. Of course not. But it gives you something to think about.”
The result of Krall’s work is an account of the Holocaust without meta-meaning, a kind of non-spiritual survival story in a fateless universe. Through her, readers glimpse of Izolda’s thoughts: “Evidently God had decided she was meant to survive the war. Or not. He had decided that she was meant to die and she opposed His verdict with all her strength. That’s the only reason she survived. And no God can claim credit. It was her doing and hers alone.” Whether this interior landscape is Izolda’s or Krall’s, we cannot know for sure.
The distinguished critic Michal Cichy calls Krall’s writing on the Holocaust “documentary fable,” adding that “the hero represents more than just him or herself.” When I ask Krall what is the take-away from Izolda’s story, however, she is flatly unromantic. “No take-away, nothing to learn. That is why it is a holocaust. Yes we know how terrible some people can be and how wonderful others are. But we cannot comprehend, or impose meaning, we cannot begin to understand.”