Renata Kim talks to Agata Tuszyńska

RENATA KIM: Do you regret writing this book?

AGATA TUSZYŃSKA: Absolutely not. I believe the truth is on my side. I didn’t commit any crime; I just documented the story of Vera Gran, the tragic story of a woman accused of collaborating with the Gestapo. Ghetto survivors testified against her, but no one was able to prove her alleged guilt. Someone saw her, someone heard or heard of someone who had heard ... Vera was ruined, and I wanted to know why. That was my purpose for writing, and now the story continues. It saddens me that history repeats itself. The curse of Vera Gran begins to weigh on anyone who tells the story.

Jerzy Giedroyc warned there would be problems.

Jerzy Giedroyc was a wise man. He said both Poles and Jews will be against me. And so it is. Some Jewish groups hold it against me that I write about a “normal” life of the ghetto, about tailors and hairdressers, locksmiths and shoemakers, laundry services, milliners and a manicure salon. There were restaurants, revue theaters, and orchestras. Jews trapped behind the walls indulged in the luxury of visiting cafes at the beginning—not all and not all the time. And there were also Jewish policemen and collaborators. This is the truth about that time—shades of gray, not just black and white.

Władysław Szpilman’s son says that the book The Accused: Vera Gran violates the memory of his father in a scandalous way.

I am being accused of violating the personal cult of Władysław Szpilman, as it was expressed in the indictment. But why should I abide by the cult? The family can do it, but I do not have to. I even object to the suggestion that Szpilman was a world-renowned composer, as well-known and important as Chopin and Beethoven. They are building him a monument in a completely unauthorized manner. It’s chutzpah. After Roman Polanski’s movie, Władyslaw Szpilman became a hero, but I really do not know what heroic act he performed. Indeed, he survived the terrible time of the occupation, but that does not make him untouchable. But apparently, if anyone dares to question the sanctity of Szpilman, he must be condemned.

Can you sympathize with his relatives?

I do my best. I can understand the pain of Mrs. Szpilman, the widow of the artist, a woman with life experience. However, I do not feel the pain of his son. I see in this man only arrogance, haughtiness, and the need for revenge.

And how will you respond to the allegation that you accused a man who he cannot defend himself? Because your book was published after his death.

I never said nor wrote that Szpilman was a Jewish policeman in the ghetto. This is what Vera Gran says, not Agata Tuszyńska. And she kept repeating it for several years of her life, not just at its end.

But Tuszyńska gladly quotes her.

For such is the duty of a reporter. Tuszyńska tried to extract from Vera Gran her memories about the time of the annihilation. What was left in her mind, what mortified her? And despite four years of work on the book I still do not know what linked Vera Gran with Władysław Szpilman in the ghetto. I have no evidence, but I suppose there was more than a singer-pianist relation.

Like what?

I don’t know. Maybe a rejected love? The knowledge of one about the other? Please note the way Szpilman distanced himself from her in his post-war life. In his memoirs, on the basis of which The Pianist was made years later, there is no mention of Vera Gran. There is no such singer in the café Sztuka in the ghetto, where they performed together for a year and a half. Szpilman wrote a song for her, “Her first ball”, and in the pages of his book, Vera, a hit performer, does not appear. Didn’t I have a right to ask why? Again, I was not the first one to do so.

The relatives of Szpilman accuse you of dishonesty.

As a biographer I complied with all the requirements of the craft. My research covered all available archives in Poland, the US, Israel, Germany and France. I analyzed documents and searched for witnesses. I did it in good faith, as I never wanted to slander anyone. I tried to understand these times, to find out the truth. I found no document that Szpilman was a Jewish policeman. But correspondingly there is no confirmation that Gran collaborated with the Gestapo. After the war she was cleared of all charges by a strict, Jewish court, so maybe she was innocent.

Did you search the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute?

I doubled checked everything. What I didn’t find were two documents that supposedly were there according to the Szpilmans. One is a letter of Władysław Szpilman written in 1983, in response to Vera Gran’s memoirs Sztafeta oszczerców [A Relay of Slanderers] published three years earlier, where for the very first time she announced seeing the pianist in the cap of the Jewish police. She did not reveal his name, but gave clues by writing “he survived the war, he’s well”… In a letter to the director of the Jewish Historical Institute Szpilman claimed it was all brazen lies, rhetorically asking what pianist was implicated. Had I found this letter, I obviously would have quoted it in my book. It is important to confront the sources. There apparently also was another letter, where Irena Sendlerowa called Vera Gran a traitor to her own nation, a collaborator. I would certainly comment on it, asking why did not she file the charges after the war, at Vera Gran’s trial.

And was she a witness there?

No. But if she knew that such a terrible „criminal” walked freely, she should have said so, should she not? At the final stage of work on the book, I found in the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance a statement of Marek Edelman from the 1945 trial. He stated then, “it was widely discussed that Vera Gran was a Gestapo’s agent”. I asked Edelman about it. He said it was made up, that it was a time of witch hunts, as such was the time … of ordering the ranks.

You spoke with Vera Gran on numerous occasions, but not with Szpilman. Did he really have to appear in this book?

Yes, he did. He was an important figure in Vera Gran’s life. They spent together the most difficult sixteen months in their life, behind the ghetto walls. After the war she obsessed about Szpilman and it was necessary to write about it too. When she published Sztafeta oszczerców she was 64 years old, and at that time she did not suffer from a persecution complex, but nonetheless she accused him of collaborating with the Jewish police. There was a sign on the wall of her Paris apartment: “Help! Help! Szpilman’s clique wants to kill me.” She thought it was Szpilman who was her oppressor. I tried to find out why. I decided not to cut him out of her fate, as he did to her. I was of the opinion if he told his story, she had the same right to tell hers. And I let her speak.

A person who suffered from a persecution complex.

I did not hide it. I emphasized it many times that I spoke with an old, broken, tormented woman. One can certainly undermine her words, calling them the product of sick imagination, but it is likely she had her reasons to keep repeating her version of a story. Moreover, I constantly stress that I was not able to find any evidence that Szpilman was a policeman in the ghetto. But I will argue that an author must have the right to quote her character.

But quite recently the German court upheld the motion of the Szpilmans.

Are you familiar with the verdict? Do you know it only in a version manipulated by Szpilman’s son? Do you know what the court actually ordered?

It ordered to blackout the unsubstantiated accusations of Vera Gran against the pianist.

Where?

In the German edition of the book.

In a subsequent edition. The first, spring 2013 one is in bookstores, and the court did not stop distribution. There is no second one yet and it remains unknown whether it will ever be. And it is where the German court ordered blacking out a total of 25 lines out of 375 pages. In the justification of the verdict – dismissing part of Szpilman’s claims – it wrote that the author exercised due diligence, respectively distancing herself from the words of Vera Gran. What’s more, this information was already known before, in 1980. “The quotations are merely repeated. There is no identification with them.” The court simply agreed with me.

What did the last two years change in your life?

I know that my writing evokes great emotions. I know that what I write is important, if this is what happens. I know I cannot be loved by everybody or satisfy everyone. And that friends can be made in poverty and in success. The hardest thing to cope with is the people’s aggression, brutality, stupidity and rudeness. I would rather not know it. It’s scary. For instance the way Szpilman’s son theoretically defends his father, actually trying to destroy me, just as he has said…

How is it so?

In October of 2007, I called the Szpilmans, for as every honest biographer I try to check everything I can, to compare different versions of events. I tried to learn the standpoint of the Szpilmans family. Mrs. Szpilman picked up and immediately gave a phone to her son. And he began threatening me. He said: “If you write about Vera Gran, this black sheep and collaborator, if you refer to her book, and I know from ‘American Jewish communities’ that you want to do that, you can be sure I will destroy you. Your career will be over.” At that time I had not written a single word of my book. I was only doing research.

Were you scared?

No, but it was a shocking experience. I don’t scare easily. But now I have to say that I am afraid of this man. I feel besieged. I can understand Vera Gran better. After meetings with readers, in New York, Paris, Dusseldorf, nasty comments immediately appear on the Internet. I recognize his style. In Germany he sent people to record my book signings. And earlier I received from his German lawyers a letter that if I said a word about an alleged cooperation of Szpilman with the Gestapo or security service I would go to jail or pay a fine, several thousand euros. There is a limit to the absurd.

You sound like Vera Gran. She was also – as she claimed – spied on, assaulted, crept from behind…

Yes, there isn’t a camera in my lamp yet but I can feel the burden of his hate. I am not crazy yet. I have witnesses who see what’s happening, monitor the cesspool of the internet, and watch the play of slander. Szpilman’s son called the Polish Cultural Institutes abroad, prohibiting promotion of my book – “a disgusting attack on Władysław Szpilman in the style of the worst March persecution of the Moczar era”. He uses the argument of anti-Semitism which in case of settling accounts between two Jewish artists seems insane.

You are Vera Gran.

No, I am not. There are attempts for me to play this role, but I will not allow it. Andrzej Szpilman confirmed before the court that he runs a webpage with disgusting information about me. Check his statements.

I did. There is for example the information that your book marginalizes the role of the Nazis in the Holocaust, that you make a slanderous attack on Władysław Szpilman.

Anything can appear in print. The internet, under the cover of an anonymous letter, even more. This is not a history book about WWII, nor about Poles rescuing Jews, nor the Germans’ guilt. This is a story of one life, of a woman who survived the ghetto. Szpilman is not the main character, he is a man who has become the embodiment of evil and harm she experienced. Why would I attack him? What for?

Andrzej Szpilman believes that if it weren’t for the name of his father, no one would have noticed this book.

I don’t share his taste and values. The readers think this is an important book, talking about life in the ghetto in its complexity and everyday life, analyzing survival strategies. Andrzej Szpilman is furious, he would rather – obviously – see his father as a steadfast hero, or even a victim of communist repression. But can you call a victim someone who in the 1950s was director of the music section of Polish Radio? Who wrote 500 songs, out of which dozens were of a Socialist Realist nature, such as “Czerwony autobus” (“The Red Bus”), “Do roboty” (“To work!”), “Walczyk murarski” (“Bricklayer’s Waltz”), and “Zmartwienie maszynisty” (“A Machinist’s Troubles”)? One cannot distort history so much.

And don’t you feel that you’ve crossed a line? That not only do you not follow a personality cult, but you are also trying to destroy Władysław Szpilman?

In what? In the book or in what I am saying now?

Now. I can sense in your words a lot of hostility toward the pianist’s relatives.

I kept silent for over two years. But now it is hard not to react to what Andrzej Szpilman is doing. And he does and says terrible things. I understand that he wants to protect the good name of his father, but he uses vile methods. I will not repeat his despicable comments pertaining to me and my family. They violate not only our dignity but also good taste. His suggestion that I stole Chinese porcelain from Vera’s apartment is the mildest of my alleged transgressions. I laughed at the beginning, but not anymore. Seeds of hatred laboriously sown can finally land on fertile ground.

You look very tired.

I’ve never been in such a situation...

Being accused?

Methodically vilified. Life is made up of distress, more or less severe. It also brings drama. We try to overcome pain and despair. Keep going in the name of doing good, our own reasons or hopes. Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been going on against me for over two years and constantly, almost every day I am deliberately being attacked and humiliated. This kind of long term aggression makes me lose confidence in the world. More and more often bitterness prevails.

And you really don’t regret writing the book?

No, I don’t regret it. It’s a vital testimony. The only one. Without Vera Gran we wouldn’t have known what it meant to be a singer in the ghetto. Children died in the streets, and right next to it, in a café a young woman in a beautiful black dress, sang about love. The audience, wine, applause—was it morally ambiguous? They came to listen to the music, as it allowed them to forget, transferred them to the pre-war world, where – just as others – they had a right to happiness. They weren’t aware immediately of what lay ahead of them. They tried to live. They made certain choices, dealt with fate. Some survived. But it still was not the end of the war. They lived in its shadow. Then came time for settling accounts. Survivors are not saints.