I'd Like to Say Sorry but There's No One To Say Sorrry To
by Mikolaj Grynberg
The New Press, 160 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
The familiar ending to Holocaust survivor narratives, the one we’ve come to see as the norm, involves the survivor, displaced and homeless at the close of the war, beginning a new life in a free and welcoming country. It’s a narrative that moves from great darkness into the light, with a final coda in which the survivor tells how, despite her family and community falling victim to the largest genocide in history, she has beaten the odds – and here’s the proof: she is today the mother, grandmother, perhaps ever great-grandmother, to new generations of proud Jews.
Mikolaj Grynberg’s story collection, I’d Like To Say Sorry, But There’s No One To Say Sorry To, which was nominated for the prestigious Nike literary award, offers a stark alternative to that trajectory. All of the speakers in this collection of brief, plainspoken but hard-hitting narratives, (each told either in first person, or in an intimate, almost conversational second person) live in modern day Poland. Jewish, partially Jewish, or not Jewish at all, each offers a take on what it means to carry a Polish-Jewish identity. The accumulation of voices circle around the burden of vanished pasts, murdered families, and the unspoken guilt of the survivor. Underlying all these stories is the problem of living in the space, both literally and metaphorically, of a catastrophe. Most of Grynberg’s protagonists lead outwardly normal and successful existences, even as their inner lives are plagued with absences, mystery, and unanswered questions. As one of Grynberg’s characters puts it:
You do your best to get your life under control, but it turns out the only thing you can settle down with is your sadness. How to leave it behind seems like a mystery. You do know that it’s driven by a grief that has settled like thick fog over many generations…I do my best to look at things positively. I stretch out in a beach chair on vacation and gaze into the distance. And you know what I see? A crooked horizon.
Grynberg is a photographer by trade, (the notion of photographs – their creation, composition, retrieval, and retouching figures largely in some of the stories) and the author of three books of non-fiction that explore the lives of Jews in Poland through the twentieth century and beyond. In a Zoom interview set up by the journal Jewish Currents, Grynberg explains, in so many words, that he turned to fiction because it gave him license to shape and drive the stories as he himself saw fit. In other words, fictionalizing has enabled him to communicate a reality that can’t be easily spoken in a straightforward manner. In “The German Boy” for example, a young Jewish child is sent to summer camp. When his bunkmates here his “weird” name, one suggests that it must be German, and the boy affirms it.
I ended up having a very German evening and night. I learned firsthand what we did to them. The kids weren’t aggressive, but they were the victors. Meanwhile I was the one who lost the war. Since in my short life I’d already experienced being the Jew who killed Jesus, I thought maybe I was better off being a defeated German.
Things get even more convoluted when he is befriended by an older girl who teaches him to smoke, shows him where to buy sweet milk in a tube, and helps him avoid the camp breakfast of milk with noodles, supplying him with a more palatable meal of bread and butter instead. He concludes the story, saying “I grew to like the stinking bathroom, the breakfasts, the cigarettes, and my new friend, who also had a German last name.”
Many of the book’s stories share this confessional tone, and also the same uncanny sense of hearing familiar stories from the opposite side – a side that somehow, in its obvious ties to the obliterated community of 3,000,000 Polish Jews, has the quality of an indignant ghost, a remnant whose very existence seems theoretically impossible. “I’d been an idiot,” the speaker in “A Jewish Barter,” says at the start of the story. “I’d agreed to go to Auschwitz with a visitor from Israel. He’d made the request through an acquaintance, and I wasn’t assertive enough.”
The continuation of the tale unfolds as though looking through a double-sided mirror that shows both the well-known details and their eerie inverse.
When we started seeing road signs for Oswiecim I had to explain that yes, that was its Polish name, but no, the signs were for the city, not the camp. When we did start seeing signs for the camp itself, my passenger went quiet. He looked out the window as if searching for something to help him understand what was going on here. I’d done the same on my first visit. He spotted some people and asked if those were Poles. Yes, those are Poles, my dear friend from Israel, but be careful not to confuse them with their grandparents or the grandparents of today’s Germans.
The host lives among the grandchildren of those Poles. To him, Oswiecim is a city, a part of the landscape. But not only. Never only.
He had so many questions that I couldn’t keep up with my answers. Did they wash? How often? What about winter? Did they eat standing up or have somewhere to sit? How much time did they get for meals” Where they always getting hounded around, or did they have moments of rest? What do you think, would the two of us have survived? Enough, I say. Enough! Stop asking question because no matter how many questions you ask, you won’t understand. I know because I used to ask questions, then finally I gave up. It worked. He was struck dumb.
But there’s more. When the Israeli reciprocates by offering to show the speaker around Masada, he reflects that “It was sort of a Jewish barter: I give you murder in the camps, you give me Jewish suicide…I’ve stopped answering calls from my friend, I don’t respond to his emails,” he confesses. “For now, I’ve decided to live.”
Equally unsettling are the stories in which the speaker only learns of his or her connection to Judaism late in life. In “Unnecessary Trouble,” the speaker, who only discovered that his grandmother was Jewish when she informed her family in a deathbed confession, directs his ire at an unnamed character, ostensibly Grynberg:
With me, things are simple because I work where I told you, I’m as old as I said I was, I’ve already described my family, and there’s you go, everything’s clear. But not with you guys! First you’ve got to deceive everybody, then frighten everybody, then shock them, and then at the very end you die and leave a great big mess.
Don’t be fooled by Grynberg’s straight-talking, conversational voice (wonderfully rendered in Sean Gasper Bye’s translation). In their linguistic sparseness, these stories succeed in saying the unsayable, in giving a sense of what it’s like to grow up atop an abyss. “If you were born a few generations earlier, you’d be living right in the middle of a gushing current,” he reflects in the final, soul-searching story, “Stagnant Waters.”
And now where are you? The same geography, but the hydrology—the Jewish hydrology, you might say —is totally different…Some people were born too early, but we were summoned here too late. In order to keep on living, we have to understand the consequences of that.
In writing this book, Grynberg has deliberately chosen to delve into the fragmented makings of his Jewish identity. In a world where people debate whether Hitler won or lost, his choice carries enormous weight.
Dr.Caroline Goldberg Igra