Sunday, June 19, 2016
Last month I went to hear Antanas Sileika talk to AgataTuszyńska about her newly released memoir Family History of Fear. Tuszyńska is a Polish journalist, biographer, and poet.
She was in Toronto at the Harbourfront Centre’s International Festival of Authors (IFOA) to promote the English translation of the book that was originally published in 2005. The memoir is about her peculiar and painful growing up when her Jewish side was deliberately and rather forcefully hidden.
Tuszyńska was born to a Jewish mother Halina Przedborska, and an Orthodox Christian father, Bogdan Tuszyński. She has devoted considerable time and effort to record the rapidly vanishing Jewish presence from Poland’s mainstream. Her works include a biography of Issac Bashevis Singer (Singer: Landscapes of Memory), a controversial biography of Vera Gran (The Accused), for which the subject dragged the author to court,
Sileika, author of three novels, including the highly acclaimed Underground, is a polished interviewer. His seemingly innocuous questions to Tuszyńska invariably resulted in soul searing responses.
“I wasn’t allowed to openly say that I was partly Jewish,” she said. To resolve this contradictory identity, she decided to write a memoir. Some of her friends were aware of her identity, as was her late husband, too, and was a vociferous supporter of Tuszyńska attempt to record her life. “To come out of the closet, so to speak, about my Jewish identity was important not only to me, but also to so many others like me,” she said.
She had to face prejudice, even from her father, even as her mother would quietly assure her that Tuszyńska was indeed a Jew. Her parents were famous, her father was a sport journalist, and a historian with an illustrious career, and her mother was also a journalist.
They separated when she Tuszyńska was six. She recalled, at that young age, she wasn’t willing to accept this separation, and would leave her dad’s shoes outside the door to show the other children that “he was still with me.”
Sileika asked her why she wasn’t as evocative describing her Polish heritage as her Jewish heritage, and that post-war Poland wasn’t a terribly happy place, but that period in the memoir is of happy times. Tuszyńska said both her parents were socialists, who were determined, like most of that generation, to build a new Poland. Of course, their aspirations were throttled by the overbearing presence and overarching control by the Soviet Union.
Tuszyńska’s mother never spoke about her mother (Tuszyńska’s grandmother) for many years, but then opened up to her daughter to tell her about her grandmother’s tragic death in October 1944 (Poland was liberated in January 1945).
Tuszyńska explained that in the memoir she created her grandmother’s character from her purse, which was the only thing that Tuszyńska’s mother had saved. What the purse contained was both shocking and revelatory. Everything thing in the purse was false: the documents, an envelope with a stamp that had Hitler’s face, and a photo of Jesus Christ. She was ready to escape the ghetto, but the Nazis had other plans. Tuszyńska said it is ironic that the only proof of her grandmother’s existence is the false papers. Her husband, Tuszyńska’s grandfather, survived the war, but never spoke about the tragedy.
Marriages and unions where religion and race come together are fairly commonplace these days, especially in Canada, where immigrants from across the world live together to create a unique Canadian identity that valiantly attempts to rise above the narrow confines of faith and colour. And yet, each of this union is unique and has its own moments of little glories and major crises. Each is worth a book, at least.