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holy week

28 june 2020

Jerzy Andrzejewski's Holy Week is an appallingly powerful novel, a thrilling parallel to Andrzej Szczypiorski's Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, and an indelible image of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943.

I am no expert on Polish culture or politics. I have spent more than 20 minutes studying Poland but way, way less than 20 years, and now I may not reach the lifespan to understand the issues at stake in modern Polish literature. But I gather that both Andrzejewski and Szczypiorski have been, and continue to be, controversial figures in Poland, maybe for different reasons every decade or so.

Jerzy Andrzejewski lived from 1909 to 1983 in Poland, never going into exile, surviving from Tsarist times through multiple revolutions and wars and living to see the ascendance of Solidarity, if not its ultimate triumph over the Communist regime. Andrzejewski's political and moral stances changed frequently during his lifetime, from aestheticism to Catholicism to anti-fascism to Stalinism to dissidence to energetic support of Solidarity. (By contrast, Andrzej Szczypiorski, born in 1928, was also a wartime anti-fascist, and also stayed in Poland; but he was much longer and more deeply aligned with the Communist regime, but eventually became a strong critic of that regime and long outlived it, dying in 2000.)

Holy Week appeared in 1945, when the flames of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Gentile uprising of 1944 had barely cooled; Andrzejewski witnessed both at first hand. Unlike The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, written proleptically and with extensive hindsight, Holy Week offers a vivid immediate impression of the unthinkable.

Holy Week lasts just that title week of 1943, when the Warsaw Ghetto resisted and the Nazis destroyed it, and while the Polish Gentiles of Warsaw "under the canopy of an immense cloud of smoke, baked Easter loaves, bought flowers, rode merry-go-rounds" (Oscar Swan, "Introduction," xxi). Jan Malecki, a decent liberal Polish Gentile – some of his best friends literally are Jewish – is trying to commute to and from his job as an architect at a real-estate firm while avoiding the Ghetto conflagration. But by chance he runs into Irena Lilien, a Jewish friend of his from long ago, a woman who'd always had a crush on him but never quite found it requited.

Jan is married now, to a Gentile woman named Anna, and Anna is pregnant, and hiding a Jew is worth their lives, but Anna has been passing as Gentile for some time, and Jan feels confident that he can protect her for a few days. He takes her home, only to find that his brother Julek has arrived in the meantime. Julek, a clandestine resistance fighter, actually cares for Anna more than Jan does, and his feelings are requited. The presence of Irena, in addition to the stress of hiding a fugitive during the battle for the Ghetto, exposes faultlines in the Malecki family.

As in The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, the moral problem – how far will these Polish Gentiles go to protect Polish Jews, or indeed how far will they go to persecute them – is front and center. But in Holy Week Andrzejewski captures to a much greater extent the banal accommodations made by those with the leisure to accommodate Nazism: the going along to get along, the informing to the Gestapo because one fears being informed on to the Gestapo. Even the Poles who help Jews do so in response to ill-defined pressures, rather than moral heroism. Irena Lilien reflects on the dynamic:

If I can only make it through to the end. … [But] we'll be even more despised then than now … At present a simple sense of shame prevents many people from showing open hostility toward us. They shelter us out of compulsion and hide us out of a sense of obligation. But then there will be no one to force them to. (44-45)
One wonders how many of the Righteous Among the Nations, the heroes who protected Jews during the Holocaust, acted out of such motives. Or whether it really matters. Actions are actions, however motivated, and moral calculus may go out the window under urgent circumstances.

Jan Malecki does try to help Irena, though tentatively, and circumstances overtake him. In a crucial scene, he ends up obtaining some security for Irena, but at the cost of obliquely blackmailing a landlord who is trying to hide his own Jewish origins; the ironies are hideously wrought. Julek, by contrast, takes the most direct action. Even though the Polish Resistance was well-organized and would rise against the Germans themselves in 1944, they have been criticized among historians for failing to help the Jews of the Ghetto. Andrzejewski imagines a small cadre of Poles, though, who lead a suicide mission into the Ghetto to try to bring aid to the Jewish fighters. Julek heads off to his death, full of scorn for the tepid, temporizing Jan – who then does what little he can, ultimately ineffectually, to emulate Julek – by trying to help a single Jew.

Julek and his cadre may be wishful thinking on Andrzejewski's part, or they may represent the rare Poles who took their solidarity with persecuted Jews to the limit. In the logic of the novel, they represent one rhetorical stance. For the most part, Andrzejewski's narration, in Holy Week, is cinematic. We see things directly. The narrator fills us in matter-of-factly about some background information, and then the scenario plays out. Unlike Szczypiorski's arch, proleptic "told" narration in The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, Holy Week is very much a "shown" novel.

But this "shown" aspect of Holy Week ends up displacing the rhetoric in Andrzejewski's novel onto the characters themselves, who sometimes talk like position papers rather than people scrambling to survive in an extreme situation. The dialogue in The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman is more convincing, even if its whole presentation seems more contrived; in Holy Week we see characters through a pane of glass, but they speak at times in contrived ways. The two novels complement each other brilliantly (and one has to imagine that Szczypiorski wrote in counterpoint to Andrzejewski's much earlier text). And this fiction just gets more relevant – to issues of racism worldwide, and specifically to issues of Polish memory and history – all the time.

I'll close with a brief remark on translation. Oscar Swan is the lead translator and editor here, and wrote an introduction to the volume; but the translation is credited to members of one of his seminars at the University of Pittsburgh. This is a rare example of a truly collaborative scholarly/creative work in the humanities, and a valuable model for others.

Andrzejewski, Jerzy. Holy Week. [Wielki Tydzień, 1945.] Translated by Daniel M. Pennell, Anna M. Poukish, Matthew J. Russin, and Oscar E. Swan. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007. PG 7158 .A7W5413