Tuszynska, Agata. “Family History of Fear: A Memoir”, Anchor Books, 2017.
Revisiting the Past
Many family histories include a tragedy in the past and this so true of those who lived in Poland during World War II. Because of this family histories do not share all of the events. Sometimes the passage if events dull the pain. In the case of Agata Tuszyńska, one of Poland’s most admired poets and cultural historians, the times has come that she is ready to share the stories she heard from her mother about her secret past. In those stories we read of the underground Home Army, the tragedy of the Warsaw Uprising and the civil war against the Communists. This is a powerful memoir about growing up after the Second World War in Communist Poland as a blonde, blue-eyed, and Catholic girl. It was not until she was
nineteen years old and living in Warsaw when her mother told her the truth—that she was Jewish—and began to tell her stories of the family’s secret past in Poland. Tuszyńska, who grew up in a country filled with anti-Semitism, rarely heard the word “Jew” (only from her Polish Catholic father, and then, always in derision) and she became unhinged, ashamed, and humiliated. She skillfully erased the truth within herself, refusing to admit the existence of her other half.
When Tuszyńska investigated her past, she began to write of her journey to uncover her family’s history during World War II. Her mother, at age eight, and her grandmother entered the Warsaw Ghetto for two years where conditions grew more desperate. Her mother escaped just before the uprising, and lived “hidden on the other side.” She writes of her grandfather, one of five thousand Polish soldiers taken prisoner in 1939, who later became Poland’s most famous radio sports announcer. She writes of her relatives and their mysterious pasts, as she tries to make sense of the hatred of Jews in her country. She shares her discoveries and her willingness to accept a radically different definition of self, reading the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer who opened up for her a world of Polish Jewry.
Here is a book of discovery and acceptance and an insightful portrait of Polish Jewish life, from before and after Hitler’s Third Reich.
Tuszynska grew up in a relatively privileged home during the 1950s and 1960s. Her father was a well-known radio broadcaster and provided her and her family with a higher status than the norm, even though her parents’ marriage actually ended when she was a child. After the war, most of the Jewish survivors immigrated after the war, but a small minority remained, assimilated and the younger generations, are mostly unaware of its heritage.
This is a fascinating look at the interconnections between what had been a wealthy Jewish family with its less prosperous Polish Catholic in-laws. Young Poles were brought up to believe that Communism was leading their country to a great future.
About seventy percent of the Jews in the world today have Polish roots. Until the 1920’s, Poland had the largest Jewish community in the world. Today it barely exists at all. This, of course, is due to the Holocaust and the mass emigration of its survivors. There is another part of the story— that of the Jews who survived and continued their lives in Poland as assimilated Poles, either repressing or denying their Jewish identity.
Tuszyńska reveals each branch of her family tree, both Polish and Jewish giving us an intimate, highly personal picture of life in Poland through the upheavals of the twentieth century. When she learned of her Jewish identity, Tuszyńska, like her mother had almost all her life, chose to hide it.
The revelation had no adverse impact on any of her personal relationships with other Poles. There is a great deal of interesting information here including the account of her grandmother’s tragic death, while living under the protection of righteous Poles in the Praga district of Warsaw in the closing days of the war and the heroism of her Polish uncle Oleś, a bigamist with two Jewish wives (and who lived to be 100). I had reached a point when I could no longer read about the Holocaust and then I took a chance and read this and everything changed.
We know how most books about the Holocaust end and even though we can never let it happen again, there is only so much pain we are able to take. It took a good writer like Agata Tuszynska to show mw how much I had been missing.