True tales of the Holocaust tough but critical reading

“Regina also left for Lublin. Arie Manczyk arranged a match for her with a divorced man … Adam Mandelkern …Their son, Mareczek, was born three years before the war … Klara married Mayer Goldstein who was sent to her from Lublin by Mandelkern. Mayer studied at a merchant marine academy…Two young men from Drohobycz, Jakub Fiternik and Jakub Altschuler studied there too …”

I read the passage over and over again, trying to retain the names and relations and associations of each individual listed — just a mere smattering of those listed on page four alone! Unsuccessful. Each time I pick up “Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales from the Holocaust and Life After,” I thumb back a few pages in vain efforts to remember who the characters are in the haunting tales of the Holocaust and beyond.

But “Drohobycz, Drohobycz,” a small, somewhat unassuming book by Henryk Grynberg, is not a piece to be picked up as the mood or availability strikes you. It does not allow you to pick up where you left off, catch up on a chapter on the commuter train or ferry. Instead, it is more a frenetic diatribe à la Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” that is best ingested in one or two caffeinated, lucid and dedicated sittings.

Perhaps it is the depth of the topic: the Holocaust. The horrific truths of this time never cease to shock

Perhaps it is the cumbersome nature of the Polish language translated into English. Or perhaps it is merely the style of someone telling tales as they were told to him. Conversational, meandering, difficult. As if listening in on the gossip of two intimates speaking of people you do not know in a language you do not speak or understand. And yet, to not know these stories would be to walk through this life somewhat ill-informed, somewhat ignorant.

“Drohobycz, Drohobycz” is a series of 13 authentic tales of the Holocaust, each one personal and true. Each death. Each innocence lost. Not merely a set of numbers attached to a camp or a city. No Hollywood spin. Instead, a series of memories that read much like diary entries filled with personal, even mundane, details that would otherwise matter to only a few.

Bruno Schultz shot in the street by a Gestapo officer while bringing home a loaf of bread. The Polish policeman, a Jew himself, “saving” a Jewish girl from her hiding place in the country. A woman setting her table with beautiful china each day rather than hiding it from the SS. “They should know how we lived,” she explains to her children. A surviving photograph — blurred. Navy blue blouses with white trimmings. Navy blue bows in braids.

The names, the complete stories, are lost on me. But the snippets of time linger. Like scanty memories of summer vacations as a child. Pieces of time knitted together to create a past.

Grynberg has written 26 books of fiction, poetry, essays and drama and has been the recipient of numerous Polish literary prizes. A survivor of the Holocaust, he sought refuge in the United States, settling in Virginia, because of Poland’s censorship of his writing. All of Grynberg’s pieces were written in Polish and published also in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew, Hungarian and Czech. He has received most of the major Polish literary prizes, and in 2001 an international panel placed his novel “The Victory” among the 100 greatest works of modern Jewish literature.

His series of short stories, “Drohobycz, Drohobycz,” is for those who want to know more than the facts. For those who want to hear more than the voices of men, the book gives voice to the women and children who survived. The stories of those who lived through not only the concentration camps, but also those who naively believed there would be better times in the former Soviet Union. To obtain a closer glimpse into the psyche of a survivor. Of the child of survivors.

This is not a book of answers. Instead it is a brave attempt to allow all of us to hear the poetry that is each person’s life being told.

“Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales from the Holocaust and Life After” by Henryk Grynberg (272 pages, Penguin Books, $14).