- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005

THE WOMAN FROM HAMBURG AND OTHER TRUE STORIES

By Hanna Krall

Translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine

Other Press, $19,

260 pages

The 12 nonfiction tales that Polish journalist Hanna Krall includes in her collection “The Woman From Hamburg and Other True Stories” primarily concern the lives of Polish Jewish survivors of World War II. Writing in a style that can be described as journalistically spare and scrupulously objective, the author relates a broad spectrum of experience that would be unfathomable were it not true.

In the story from which the book takes its title, a Jewish woman who is hidden by an infertile Polish couple, gives birth to her protector’s child. In another, a young American man is bedeviled by the ghost of his half brother who died in the Warsaw ghetto. Though he did not know the boy, he learns Polish in order to be able to communicate with him. In a story called “Phantom Pain,” a high ranking German officer makes plans to kill Adolf Hitler after he witnesses the mass execution of Jews in Eastern Poland.

This is a gracefully written book. Often, Ms. Krall writes more like a poet than a journalist, a style only reinforced by the fluid translation rendered by Madeline G. Levine, Czeslaw Milosz’s prose translator. And while this is a book that reels from the kind of stories we have come to know about the Holocaust, what works to singular effect here is the author’s wide angle lens. No one — Jew or Gentile, Pole or German — is spared from some measure of suffering.

The book is divided into two parts. The first five stories, including the title story are taken from a volume originally published as “Dancing at Someone Else’s Wedding.” The remaining stories come from a volume entitled “Proofs of Existence.” One could make the point that the difference between the two sections is that in the first, stories seem to emphasize the nearly unspeakable crimes of war, while in the second individuals are at pains to make sense of it all.

In the beginning, life was good for the Polish couple Barbara and Jan. They were sociable, danced through carnival and then war broke out. “The War didn’t change their life, except that they stopped dancing and new words appeared in their [sign-painting] firm. Now they had orders for warning signs … First in Polish … Then in Russian … Then in German …

“One winter evening, in 1943, [Jan] brought home a stranger, a woman.

“‘This woman is a Jew. We have to help her.’

“His wife asked if anyone had seen them in the stairwell and quickly made some sandwiches.

“The Jewess was petite, with curly black hair, and although her eyes were blue, she looked very Semitic. They put her in a room with a wardrobe. (Wardrobes and Jews … This is perhaps one of the most important symbols of our century. To live in a wardrobe … A human being in a wardrobe … In the middle of the twentieth century. In the heart of Europe.”

And so the action of this true tale of unbridled sorrow unfolds, matched by others of equal intensity. In one called “Portrait With a Bullet in the Jaw,” a man named Thomas Blatt who survived internment at Sobibor where the largest uprising in the concentration camps took place on Oct. 14, 1943, moves to California after the war only to return as a consultant on a Hollywood movie that depicted the great escape.

Ms. Krall relates how Blatt reacted to watching the staging of the escape. At a point when he felt that the actor was not moving fast enough, he suddenly joined the action of the running and, himself ran and ran. “The shot had long since been completed, but Blatt kept running. They found him several hours later, covered with scratches, his eyeglasses broken, hiding in the woods.”

This volume is filled with such moments, vignettes really of extraordinary power, and they do not exclude the guilty. An SS man makes an attempt to apologize for the 250,000 Jews who were gassed at Sobibor. A wife of a Gestapo chief plaintively asks if her husband personally killed anyone. “Did he murder children?” Then in court she asked for a moment to speak with her husband. “She walked over to her husband, took off her wedding ring, handed it to him without a word, and left the room.”

So it is that page after page of this remarkable book proceeds to powerfully reveal how individuals coped. Never far from memory are the victims, sometimes listed in sequence at the end of a story or mentioned by name as the story unfolds. There are mass killings, mass graves, individual murders, unspeakable horrors here. And there are the vain attempts to understand, often through the use of literature or philosophy.

In “The Dybbuk,” American Jews like the one haunted by the ghost of his late brother seek spiritual guidance. Some turned to Du Lun, a Chinese from Manchuria with whom “they meditated and discussed Buddhism.” They asked him “why God had allowed Treblinka.”

“Du Lun did not know and asked them to meditate more deeply, with more concentration.”

There are no answers here but this powerful book, with all its sorrows and its questions, illuminates.

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