A Conversation with Mikołaj Grynberg

“I think the figure of the Jew is always used in times of crisis.”

Sean Gasper Bye
April 21, 2020
Photo: Mikołaj Starzyński

In late October 2019, Rejwach translator Sean Gasper Bye interviewed Mikołaj Grynberg about his foray into fiction and what it means to be a Polish Jew in the present moment. This interview was featured as a Jewish Currents 2019 winter gift to subscribers, along with an excerpt from Rejwach, translated by Bye. This interview has been translated from the Polish by Bye, and edited for clarity and style. 

Sean Gasper Bye: Rejwach is your first work of fiction. Why did you choose fiction this time, and how do you see this work relating to the documentary books you were writing before?

Mikołaj Grynberg: With my first three books, I was always doing my absolute best to get someone to tell me a story. But it’s always a symbiosis: I wanted something out of talking to my subjects, and they also wanted something, and I had to respect that. In the case of documentary writing you’re always left with the question of how much you can intervene. You can edit, you can cut, but you can’t add anything. 

With each subsequent book I felt like I wanted more and more to tell the story in my own way. I understood the stories these people were trying to tell me, but they had too many words, too much chitchat. While working on the last books, I was sitting there thinking to myself: Come on, say something, don’t draw it out. When I started writing Rejwach, I felt relief; I was writing in my own rhythm. For me, it felt as though I’d gained my voice.

SGB: These stories seem universal, recognizable, even though they’re made up.

MG: I wanted them to. We had the book launch at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Before the event, an actor who was supposed to read a few stories during the event said to me, “I know who told you about those five Jews,” referring to the story in the book, “My Five Jews.” And I said, “Listen, no one told me that. I made it up myself.” And he said, “The hell do you mean—I know her, she’s from Otwock! She talks just like that.” 

I get this question at all my author events: “All right, Mr. Grynberg, tell us straight, is this true or not?” To which I answer: “But what did you feel when you read it?” And this person says: “I was moved, it touched me.” And I answer: “Then that is true.”

SGB: I know you often travel around Poland pro­moting your books and doing author events. What’s the reaction to your work in Poland, in all these cities and little towns?

MG: Ten years ago the responses were fairly friendly. People would listen to what I was saying with a lot of curiosity, ask questions. Of course you’d always get someone who had their opinion about Jews, and normally it was an unfriendly opinion. But since 2015, since the extreme right Law and Justice  party has been in power—which these days isn’t even the furthest right anymore—the situation has been exacerbated. I had a long, two-year tour, because I published two books in two years, one after the other. And I kept hearing awful things. People were asking why I didn’t write in my own language, why I was slandering Poland. There was a lot of aggression, a whole lot of antisemitism, a lot of, “Finally we can say what we really think, because we’re at home, and you guys should go back home.” 

But there was also a large group creating the sense of a counterweight: people who came to my events to testify that what’s happening today in the public sphere in Poland is not in their name. Some people who came hadn’t even read my books; they came so I could see them, so I wouldn’t feel alone.

SGB: What do you think changed? Is it just that Law and Justice is in power, or is there something else going on?

MG: I think the figure of the Jew is always used in times of crisis—you can always throw the Jewish card on the table, and it will bring a surge in the polls. That’s also happening now. 

Antisemitism in Poland comes back to life every ten, 20 years, when it’s needed. Statistically, in Poland, there are no Jews anymore. Out of 38 million citizens, there are well under 20,000 of us. (I don’t like it when American Jews say there are no Jews in Poland—but I’m here, so I can say it!) Clearly it’s not about Jews—it’s Poles slinging this shit at one another. There are entire websites with lists of names of public figures, saying, “Nowadays this guy is named such-and-such, but he’s really called Rosenzweig.” Poles call one another Jews as a way of having someone to spit on.

SGB: You show a little of that antisemitism in Rejwach. I’m thinking, for example, of the story “Common Good,” in which a history teacher claims the stories you tell in your books aren’t true. Do you think of your writing as political?

MG: Over the last few years, I’ve become some­­­­one who’s periodically considered an enemy of Poland. Someone you can tell to his face that he isn’t a Pole. From that moment on, it becomes political. As long as the times aren’t political, nothing is political. If the times become political, everything we say be­comes political. 

But I am a Pole. I’m also a Jew, but I’m a Pole. They say, “Go home!” and I say, “I am home.” And then, you know, they want to see who knows more of Mickiewicz and Słowacki [Poland’s national poets] by heart and so on . . .

SBG: These conflicts over identity are also a theme in your work. I’m thinking of the story “An Empty Jewish Soul,” in which a Polish Jew visits Israel and experiences contradictory feelings of belonging and alienation. You have an international perspective—you’ve lived abroad, you speak foreign languages, you’ve been interviewed by Jews in the United States and Israel. How do you see the question of diaspora in relation to Jewish life in Poland today?

MG: I think the key story in Rejwach as it regards this subject is the last story, “Oxbow Lake.” It’s about how it isn’t easy being a Polish Jew, because Jews in the diaspora and in Israel are not great fans of us. The book was translated into Hebrew, so I had events in Israel, and I heard people saying that it would be a really good book, but it didn’t need that last story. So I’d say to them: What, you like it when Poles are cruel to Jews, but when you Jews are cruel to us, then you don’t like it anymore? And they’d answer: No, it’s just not nice, that last story, it’s unnecessary. That’s how I knew I’d struck a nerve. 

Today it’s not as strong, but over decades of traveling around the world, I would meet Israelis or American Jews, and they’d ask me accusingly, “How can you live in that graveyard? Living there—it’s legitimizing Polish antisemitism!” And so on. Jews from other countries were a little bit more laid-back. But Jews in America, for instance, even if they’d never been to Poland, they’d ask me those accusatory questions just as easily as Poles did. Poles would tell me: “This is no place for you, go home.” And Jews from the rest of the world were also telling me: “Get out of there.” 

SGB: As if your identity doesn’t fit anywhere.

MG:  To me, it fits here in Poland. To other peo­ple it doesn’t fit; to me, it’s fine! My Polish identity is very strong. It’s the language. That’s why I didn’t agree to speak English for this interview. I didn’t want to, because my English is . . . I wouldn’t know how to say all this. What’s Polish in me is the language. 

There are many different voices in Rejwach—each character speaks their own way, has their own language. I spent an enormous amount of time thinking up each of these characters—I had to see each of them for them to start talking to me, to sense that they have different educations, whether they’re agitated or not. I wouldn’t feel that in any other language. 

SGB: I’m curious about how you think about your own presence in your work. In your books you sometimes share stories about your family and upbringing, and I know Rejwach contains elements of personal stories. 

MG: In my three documentary books, I appear, or my family does, whenever my interlocutor asks me about myself. I think I’m like many people of the second generation: We attempt in every possible way to bear witness to what our family suffered, to tell the story of their fates. In my interviews, often someone would suddenly hand me the opportunity on a silver platter, asking: “And how did your parents survive?” And then I could also bear witness. Of course, I could have taken those parts out, but another reason I kept them was so the reader understands why people are telling me these things about themselves—it’s because we’re conversing, and they can ask questions, too. If the conversation happened that way and then I cut myself out it would be dishonest. 

SGB: Do you think you’ll return to con­ver­sat­ions, to nonfiction? Your books deal with successive gen­erations: first Holocaust survivors, then the second generation—your generation. Is there a new, younger generation whose story you’d like to tell?

MG: That next, younger generation would have to be my children’s generation, but that’s never a good idea: I’m sure questions would come up I wouldn’t dare ask, even to other people my children’s age. Questions, in essence, about what I’ve passed on to my children. For now, I’ll wait until they raise the subject themselves. With the older generation we need to hurry; for the younger, it’s worth waiting.

Last year, exhausted by everything that came pouring down on me, I said I wouldn’t do documentary writing anymore, I’d stick to fiction. The current ruling party in Poland has unleashed the worst antisemitic resentments into society, and we are experiencing the consequences of that in the public sphere. The times here are becoming such that I’m putting more on the line than just my books; I’m putting my mental comfort—and judging from some of the emails I receive—maybe even my own safety on the line. I don’t know if I’m ready for that. I have the feeling that with my nonfiction books, and with Rejwach, I made my  contribution to the public discourse in Poland. I’ve attempted to open a window onto the world I grew up in, and I live in the conviction that this “airing out” is conducive to societal growth. But it is risky. So as it regards a book about the third generation, or documentary writing in general, I don’t know if  that’s how I’ll use the small amount of bravery I have within myself, or if I’ll hold onto it for something else.

Sean Gasper Bye is a translator of Polish literature focusing on contemporary fiction and literary reportage. His recent publications include Foucault in Warsaw by Remigiusz Ryziński and Ellis Island: A People’s History by Małgorzata Szejnert. He lives in Philadelphia.