OCTOBER 8, 2020
THE JEWISH COMEDIAN Yisrael Campbell starts the summer tour of his show “Circumcise Me” by walking in Hasidic garb across the stage, toting a plastic bag. Mopping his brow, he addresses the audience, “Is it hot in here, or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 17th century?”
Poland still weighs heavily on the Jewish imagination. A millennium of residence and deep cultural affinity can do that to a diasporic people. But, now that Jews don’t live there, it’s difficult to know how we figure in the Polish imagination. Yes, there are burgeoning Jewish cultural festivals in places that used to have Jewish inhabitants; yes, the millennia of Jewish life at the heart of Central Europe are borne witness at the astonishing POLIN museum; and yes, Polish governments have been increasingly strident in their refusal to come to terms with the genocidal murder of Polish Jewish citizens on Polish territory, let alone the other millions killed in camps on Polish territory.
These are all data points. But what do they actually think of us?
Novelist Szczepan Twardoch isn’t every Pole, and his character Jakub Szapiro, the eponymous hero of his new novel The King of Warsaw, isn’t every Jew, but at the end of 400 gripping pages, smartly and crisply translated by Sean Gasper Bye, we have at least one deep insight into what “they” might think of us. This novel — deeply, physically in love with an elegant, muscular Jewish boxer, who also happens to be a powerful gangster — is told by a gentile author from the point of view of a Jewish narrator. It tells us what he thinks right now, on the cusp of another term for President Andrzej Duda, even as it provides a snapshot of the country just before it witnessed the catastrophic murder of European Jewry.
The story takes place in the days and months leading up to the Holocaust. On the opening page, the narrator announces: “My name is Mojżesz Bernsztajn, I am seventeen, and I am not a person, I am no one, there is no me, I do not exist.” On the same page, Bernsztajn insists that he is now Mojżesz Inbar (a “brigadier general”) and that the book is being written from his apartment in Israel. Perhaps the Pole has died and the Israeli has been born, but the number of ways we can read this total self-abnegation expands as the tale continues, and almost all of those readings are darkened by the shadow of the Holocaust.
Even as the novel opens, the imminence of Europe’s darkest hour haunts the reader, just as it does the narrator, for whom the specter of the coming desolation floats through the Warsaw sky in the form of a giant sperm whale called “Litani.” Twardoch’s depiction of this symbol of looming catastrophe is rather obscure (some echo of Moby-Dick is presumably intended), but its immensity and vast, irreducible evil hovers over the actions of the gangsters, politicians, soldiers, prisoners, workers, and victims of Poland. It reminds us of the coming darkness amid the pettiness and brutality of everyday life.
Bernsztajn, the son of a devout Jew murdered for a delinquent debt, is obsessed with the strength and position of his father’s killer, the powerful gangster Szapiro. From the dirty streets of prewar Warsaw, with its bright lights and teeming squalor, Bernsztajn recounts the impressions that have cut him deep. We follow his thoughts from the boxing match that opens the novel, through Szapiro’s immaculate daily rituals and multiple erotic escapades with wife and mistresses (the gangster is young enough to be in glorious physical condition, yet old enough to be experienced and smart enough to know his place). As chief lieutenant to Jan “Buddy” Kaplica, Warsaw is his playground.
Everything Bernsztajn is, he owes to Szapiro. Even the details of his father’s death, including the disposal of the body, seem to give him a macabre thrill. Naum Bernsztajn was out of his depth in his dealings with Szapiro, unable to fulfill his side of the bargain. But from that balancing of the scales — and from each subsequent brutal act of summary judgment — the monstrous Litani grows. We see its influence in the political landscape: there are vicious men on every side, with only a thin veneer of rhetorical fairness distinguishing the behavior of the leftists, Kaplica and Szapiro. Kaplica is a pedophile, and his goon Pantaleon has an evil twin inside his head that preaches perverse violence — and these are the story’s good guys!
Only Szapiro seems to have a basic moral sense. Only he of those with power treats women and Jews with respect, grace, and sometimes even mercy. And yet that’s not enough. He also understands his role in society, which requires him to behave badly in order to sustain his reputation. Szapiro’s actions as he drives out to the country with a crippled ex-soldier in the trunk only serve to strengthen Litani, which “peered at us with one eye and opened his maw, and sang.”
The former soldier, Lieutenant Górski, had published a virulently antisemitic letter in a Warsaw paper, in which he urged Christian Poles to lock up all the Jews, drive them out to camps, and dispose of them. Hindsight may fan readers’ revenge fantasies, but the dismemberment of the pitiful Gorski causes Litani to “s[i]ng of his power and his might from the depths.” Cruelty begets cruelty, and the whale of inhumanity grows ever larger. In the world of the novel, as the looming Litani shows, there’s always someone bigger, more powerful, more selfish, more cunning, more cruel, and with a story explaining why they are right. New technologies of power and organization only expand the borders of barbarism, and soon the King of Warsaw will be no match for the Führer from Berlin.
There’s a story told of a Jewish villager born at the turn of the 20th century who got married in Russia, became a father in Ukraine, and died in Poland — all without leaving his mother’s house. For centuries, Jews like him were caught between the shifting alliances and borders constructed and fought over by the Christian kingdoms and states of Europe. Occasionally expelled, frequently persecuted, often blamed, the Jews were useful for rulers to keep around as scapegoats.
With the realignment into nation-states driven by industrialized economies, the principles of power and affiliation changed. As with other semi-autonomous ethnic minorities, Jews — who were generally not allowed to own land anyway — fled to the growing cities. From 1897 to 1921, despite the ravages of World War I, Warsaw almost doubled in size to just under a million people. It became the heart of the Polish state, with significant numbers of Jewish citizens in the vibrant working-class quarters in the north of the city. When the Germans entered the Polish capital in 1939, they entered a major European metropolis where Jews were 30 percent of the population.
The King of Warsaw is a story of that city. At the novel’s start, the Jews are useful to keep around, capable of vibrant culture, sporting success, and economic growth. But between the story told and its telling, the Jews became casualties of a nation’s worst impulses. Litani destroys Jakub without a second thought. Even with the sponsorship, the camaraderie, and the support of gangsters and politicians, the strongest Jewish man — a boxer, husband, lover, and father — is not able to withstand the forces of cruelty and selfishness.
According to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center:
On the eve of the German occupation of Poland in 1939, 3.3 million Jews lived there. At the end of the war, approximately 380,000 Polish Jews remained alive, the rest having been murdered, mostly in the ghettos and the six death camps: Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
We live in a moment of increasing diversity and increasing intolerance. Decades of mobility have expanded the religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the United States and Europe. But when you are accustomed to monoculture, justice and diversity feel enough like invasion to inspire prejudice. For the initial audience of this book, exhibit one is the refusal of the Polish Law and Justice Party to embrace the country’s diverse, cosmopolitan, and brutal past. For the new audience of the book in English translation, exhibit two is the unfolding lies and racist policies of the current faction ruling the United States. Wherever you look, Litani still looms.
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is also a contributing editor to 8by8Mag.com and the author of an ebook about the 1980s rock group Tears for Fears.