Skip to main content

Coming out of the Basement

Joshua Rubenstein

The 20th century’s darkest moments have inspired more than a few illuminating memoirs, and Agata Tuszyńska’s “Family History of Fear” belongs in their number. It is one of a cluster of remembrances that, drawing on family history, look back on genocide and war and record their aftereffects. Such narratives can be personal and yet also encompass the fate of whole nations trying to reconstitute themselves after so much ordeal.

Ms. Tuszyńska, a poet and writer from Warsaw, begins by giving us the origins of her own story before broadening her gaze to include earlier generations. She was born in 1957 to a Jewish mother and Polish father. Her mother, with her dark eyes and dark hair, was “happy to have brought a little blue-eyed blond into the world”: She had not wanted to weigh her daughter down “with a burden heavier than I could bear,” Ms. Tuszyńska writes. “She didn’t want her child to have to grow up with a feeling of injustice and fear.”

Ms. Tuszyńska’s mother, Halina, had every reason to want her daughter to avoid the burden of history. As a child, Halina had survived the war when her own mother – Agata’s grandmother—had walked with Halina through a courthouse on the edge of the Warsaw ghetto that opened onto the “Aryan” side of the city. She discreetly removed her armband—the telltale sign that they were Jews—and began an odyssey of survival, seeking hidden shelters and staying clear of the German occupiers. “Mother wanted to erase the past. To be as far as possible from the basements where she had to hide.”

For much of Ms. Tuszyńska’s own girlhood, she tells us, she felt that “the Jews were as long ago as the Egyptians and as exotic as Indians.” Then, when she was 19, she learned that her mother was Jewish—and that she herself was a Jew. Ms. Tuszyńska was determined to “reverse the course of forgetting” and explore the shrouded history of her family.

Her relatives, we learn, were luckier than most Polish Jews. One of her great-aunts had married a non-Jewish Pole, an industrialist who sheltered his Jewish wife as well as Ms. Tuszyńska’s mother and grandmother, finding hide-outs in Warsaw and in the countryside. Even Ms. Tuszyńska’s maternal grandfather, Szymon, who had been a soldier in the Polish army and was captured early in the fighting, survived his five years of captivity. He was held by the Germans with other Polish-Jewish prisoners of war because the Germans observed the Geneva Conventions in Poland and did not kill their Jewish prisoners outright, as they did the captured Jewish soldiers from the Red Army.

Focusing on each of these relatives in separate chapters, Ms. Tuszyńska offers us vignettes and personal narratives that track the ever-shifting course of Polish-Jewish relations in the 20th century: the widespread anti-Semitism before World War II, alongside the integration of many Jews into Polish culture; the betrayal of Polish Jews by their neighbors after the German invasion; the heroism of defiant Poles on behalf of individual Jews during the occupation; the attacks on Jewish survivors after the war; the postwar installation of a communist regime, broadly supported by Polish Jews until 1968, when the party, faced with the angry opposition of young people, blamed the Jews for their dissent, including loyal and longstanding party members like Ms. Tuszyńska’s grandfather. The party branded them “partisans of the Zionist imperialism of Israel” and pushed them out of the country.

Only a generation earlier, the Nazis had murdered three million Polish Jews. But this tragedy did not prevent cynical Communist Party leaders from scapegoating a despised and decimated people. Ms. Tuszyńska and her family endured this ebb and flow of history with remarkable resilience, making a life for themselves even as one regime or another reminded the Jews that they were not welcome in their own country. To forget was a strategy for survival. “We conceal memories,” she writes, “to make life easier or lighter, so it will not hurt.”

The story of Ms. Tuszyńska’s great-uncle Oleś and his two Jewish wives is the emotional heart of the book. The author’s great-aunt Frania had married him in spite of her family’s objections to his non-Jewish background. His infidelities aside, he proved to be loyal and courageous. Even as he sheltered Frania (they officially divorced during the war to make it easier for her to masquerade as his sister), he took up with a second Jewish woman, whom he later married; he protected them both, and their children, from the Nazis and their Polish neighbors. The story of this startling ménage à trois could well fit within a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-Jewish writer whose biography Ms. Tuszyńska has also written.

Once settled on her mission of familial discovery, Ms. Tuszyńska pursued it with dogged resolve. She explored the ruins of her grandfather’s prisoner-of-war camp; visited her mother’s hometown, Łęczyca, where Jews had once predominated; interviewed Poles who had helped her relatives survive; and endured the taunts of unsympathetic Poles who persisted in their dislike of Jews. “How is it that language becomes impregnated with the emotions of the users,” Ms. Tuszyńska asks herself, “and with whose permission has ‘Jew’ been changed to żydek,” a term that implies hostility and condescension. The word is said, she notes, “with a tone of superiority and a shade of disdain.”

Ms. Tuszyńska’s love for her family – not to mention her curiosity and insistence on ferreting out the truth – inspires her. “I do not want to choose only one heritage. Both of them – the Polish and the Jewish – are alive in me,” she insists. She closes her book with a dream. She would like to gather her relatives in her childhood home. “Let them come out of the silence, of nothingness, of nonexistence. From the smoke, from the grave, from forgetfulness.”