Mikołaj Grynberg is the author of the short story collection "I'd Like to Say I'm Sorry, but There's No One to Say Sorry to." (Photo/Wikimedia-Jacek Proszyk)
Mikołaj Grynberg is the author of the short story collection "I'd Like to Say I'm Sorry, but There's No One to Say Sorry to." (Photo/Wikimedia-Jacek Proszyk)

Haunting story collection provides portrait of Jewish life in postwar Poland

J.’s coverage of books is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund

Perhaps the most notable Jewish literary event of 2022 has been the release of the English translation of “The Books of Jakob,” Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s 992-page epic novel from 2014 revolving around the 18th century Jewish false messiah Jacob Frank. But the fact that Tokarczuk is not herself Jewish is a reminder that most of us have likely never encountered a single Jewish literary voice from postwar Poland.

Given that Poland was home to approximately 3 million Jews in 1933, more than any country at that time besides the U.S, this is sobering. It reflects the reality that around 90 percent of Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust; that those who survived contended with antisemitism and a government hostile to religious practice; and that those who remained in Poland in 1968 were subjected to a campaign of state-sponsored antisemitism, culminating in 15,000 Jews, roughly half of the country’s Jewish population, being stripped of their citizenship and expelled.

The impact of these catastrophes on the Polish Jewish psyche is unfathomable. Which is what makes Mikołaj Grynberg‘s haunting story collection, “I’d Like to Say Sorry, but There’s No One to Say Sorry to,” newly released in an English translation by Sean Gasper Bye, so valuable. Grynberg’s skilled storytelling enables the reader to enter this painful history through its psychological reverberations.

Born in Warsaw in 1966, Grynberg is a psychologist and photographer who has gained recognition for collecting and presenting the oral histories of Poland’s remaining Jews. This first foray into fiction consists of 31 brief monologues related in spare and understated prose, most of them only three or four pages long.

They clearly draw from the author’s experience collecting testimonies, with some of them delivered as if addressing Grynberg himself — as in the story “Procession,” in which the speaker announces, “And that’s why I need you. You’re the child of survivors, a psychologist and a photographer — no one will understand me better.”

Assembled, the stories form a sort of composite portrait of Jewish existence in postwar Poland, created from the voices of survivors, their children, non-Jews and those who did not grow up as Jews but who have unexpectedly encountered a different (and sometimes very inconvenient) truth.

That final group is perhaps the most striking, with a number of Grynberg’s stories spotlighting Jews who had elected to suppress their identity, rather than pass it on. The speaker in “An Elegant Purse” is a Polish expatriate who, upon her visits home, asks her mother to take her to her ancestors’ graves. She is repeatedly rebuffed, leading to increased estrangement. Finally, faced with losing access to her grandchildren, the mother relents and agrees to take her. Surprised to find herself in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, the speaker notes, “I was finally standing at my grandparents’ grave. Before it dawned on me that my mother was Jewish, I heard her say I was too.”

We find a similar emphasis on secrecy in “Chess” as the speaker recalls how his mother, close to death, “told me to swear I’d never tell anybody I was Jewish. She said otherwise she wouldn’t be able to die in peace.” He goes on to announce that “Today’s the day that I solemnly break that promise. A person can’t live like this — without his own life. I have to be Jewish with someone, at least for a moment.”

And given the historical challenge of being Jewish in Poland, it’s not difficult for the reader to appreciate why one would wish to shield further generations from this burden. In “Convent” a woman relates how her mother was saved from death during the Holocaust by being placed in a convent, and then recalls her own experience of being sent to a convent for protection during Poland’s wave of virulent antisemitism in 1968. She explains having decided to leave the country because “I didn’t want my children to end up in a convent.”

Quite a few of the speakers are Christians, and their approaches to the Jewish question are wide-ranging. In “Last Resort,” a man explains that he and his brother run a successful business, but both their company and their personal lives have recently fallen into decline as a result of an ugly rumor circulating that the two of them are Jews. Desperate to protect themselves, they went to the rabbi of Lodz to request a certificate declaring officially that they are not Jewish. That effort having failed, they now make an appeal to Grynberg.

Few of the speakers — whether Jewish or not — are at peace, and one senses palpably how a painful and unsettled past continues to disfigure the present moment. While it is unsurprising that this inherited trauma affects Polish Jews profoundly, it is more remarkable that Jewishness continues to maintain a hold in the consciousness of the larger nation, given that Poland’s Jewish population today is miniscule.

Translator Bye offers a thoughtful afterword, asserting that “though rooted in a catastrophic past, Grynberg’s work is fundamentally about the present. At a time of mounting official anti-Semitism in Poland, when many inside and outside the country see no place in Poland for Jews, Grynberg’s testimony of a Jewish present — a Jewish presence — is radical.”

Whether as a point of embarkation for national soul-searching in Poland or as a means of understanding the lingering impact of the Holocaust, Grynberg’s empathic portrayals deserve a wide readership.

“I’d Like to Say Sorry, but There’s No One to Say Sorry to” by Mikołaj Grynberg (The New Press, 160 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.