Courtney Angela Brkic's latest book The First Rule of Swimming comes out at the end of May.
Although my father did not speak easily about the past, he began to outline the grimmer passages of his childhood when I was about 10. "You're old enough to know these things," I remember him saying, "even if you won't understand them."
His mother had been imprisoned in Sarajevo during the second world war, and her Jewish lover — who had gone into hiding in their apartment — was deported to Jasenovac concentration camp, where he was killed in the last days of the war. Even then I knew that my father's revelations were critical to understanding the darkness that had marked him, though he was correct in his prediction that I would not fully understand.
I was in my 30s when I read Andrzej Szczypiorski's The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman. It's a Polish book, but it shed light on my Balkan father's silences and hurt, on the way he sniffed danger at every turn and exhibited a mystifying level of paternal protectiveness. It did not so much explain why I was forbidden from going to slumber parties for many years as a child or, once I was a teenager, instructed not to sign any petitions. But it did demonstrate how the past can be carried into the future like an invisible suitcase, handcuffed to the arm of the bearer.
Courtney Angela Brkic is also the author of Stillness: and Other Stories.
Each of the novel's 21 chapters follows a character in Nazi-occupied Warsaw: young Pawelek, who "was entering that period when love and death become a man's inseparable companions and the thought of them never leaves him," and his best friend, Henio, a talented mathematician who dies in the Ghetto Uprising; Sister Weronika, who "saved" Jewish children by forcibly converting them to Catholicism; a professor who dies in a summary execution; an informer; a street criminal who is a child's only hope for survival; and a Gestapo commandant who — as Szczypiorski describes him — is "the most ordinary SS man in the world, without intellectual ambitions and pangs of conscience."
At the novel's center, however, is Irma Seidenman, a Jewish woman who has passed as a Polish officer's widow until an informer reveals her true identity in 1943. The novel details her arrest and the subsequent rescue effort that Pawelek, who is in love with her, sets in motion with the help of others, revealing lives that are connected as much by dignity and courage as by stupidity and deceit. The prose is stunning, thanks to a masterful translation by Klara Glowczewska, and the characters are so fully fleshed that they seem to step off the page in order to communicate with the reader.
It is the character of Pawelek who never left me. In him, Szczypiorski, who himself took part in the Warsaw Uprising and survived Sachsenhausen concentration camp, created a young man marked in complex ways by all he has witnessed:
"When he was little more than twenty, everything he had ever known went up in flames. This city had been the only world he had. Not even the whole city, just its nucleus, the several streets between the Belvedere and the Castle, between the shore of the Vistula and the Wola cemetery. The air, the sky, and the earth were different here. Buildings blocked out the horizon. As a child he had trod every square centimeter of this bit of ground. He had no other country."
The war does not really end in 1945 for any of the book's surviving characters. Szczypiorski breaks literary convention by describing their wartime circumstances together with their postwar fates, usually within a single paragraph. They are exiled, beset by nightmares and regret, caught up in the tumult of later Polish history. At one point, Irma Seidenman describes having within her "a strange instrument that somehow resonated improperly, like a cracked fiddle."
The book's original Polish title was Poczatek (The Beginning) and I think that this is a better fit for the novel's events, and for the invisible suitcase of misery and salvation that people like Pawelek — and my father — will carry with them.