BESTSELLING POLISH writer Szczepan Twardoch addresses antisemitism, and the Jewish underworld, in 1930s Warsaw. (photo credit: Zuza Krajewska)
BESTSELLING POLISH writer Szczepan Twardoch addresses antisemitism, and the Jewish underworld, in 1930s Warsaw. (photo credit: Zuza Krajewska)
Polish writer talks Hebrew translation of his book at J'lm Writers' Fest

This year’s Jerusalem International Writers Festival is almost upon us, with the literary bash due to take place at its regular Mishkenot Sha’ananim berth, May 7-11.

As always, the festival offers an impressive roll call of stellar women and men of letters from around the globe, alongside Israeli writers of note. The artistic director, 39-year-old journalist, essayist and critic Julia Fermentto Tzaisler, has lined up a multinational cast for the five-day program, with the likes of feted 83-year-old Canadian writer Margaret Atwood; American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer Jennifer Egan; compatriot playwright, novelist and theater director Julia May Jonas; Iranian-born Swedish writer Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde; haredi-born American journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner; and Italian novelist Marco Missiroli. Several of our own literary stars, such as Etgar Keret and 96-year-old Sami Michael will also appear at the festival.

POLISH WRITER Szczepan Twardoch is also very much in the festival mix and will be getting together with Israeli novelist and journalist Michal Zamir on May 11 (8:30 p.m.) primarily to discuss, in English, Twardoch’s tome The Jewish King of Warsaw, aka The King. The novel was originally published in Polish in 2016 and was recently released in Hebrew.

Szczepan Twardoch and an incredible book on Poland and Jews

Twardoch is one of the most popular writers in Poland. He is also pretty prolific, putting out 11 books since his 2007 debut, Sternberg. That would be more than enough for most novelists, but the 43-year-old writer has also published four collections of short stories betwixt the longer works. He has garnered umpteen awards for his efforts, and quite a few of his books have found their way into visual form as popular TV series, with a silver screen adaptation in the works.

Having just read The King – partly during a short stay in Poland which, naturally, made the storyline all the more immediate and palpable – I was impressed by Twardoch’s immersive knowledge of the way some central elements of Israeli and Jewish life and culture work. One of the book’s protagonists, Warsaw-born Moishe Burnstein, is seemingly reborn after making aliyah as Moshe Inbar, who serves a long stint in the IDF and rises to the ranks of brigadier general. Or is he?

 A BILLBOARD in central Warsaw exhorts the public to visit an exhibition about Poles murdered by the Germans for helping Jews. (credit: BARRY DAVIS) A BILLBOARD in central Warsaw exhorts the public to visit an exhibition about Poles murdered by the Germans for helping Jews. (credit: BARRY DAVIS)

Then there is Jakub Szapira, a Jewish Mafioso, professional boxer and womanizer who hails from the slums, drives an American car, wears expensive suits and ruthlessly wipes out rivals and debtors in a manner that would have made Don Corleone proud.

There are numerous layers to the book, taking in a weighty thematic spectrum that ranges from cultural and religious identity, to morals and individual allegiance. The King is not for the squeamish, with sex, drugs and graphically depicted brutal physical violence liberally strewn across the pages. 

Considering the current political narrative coming out of Poland, I wondered whether writing a book that has antisemitism as one of its central motifs took some courage. The Polish government has made no bones about where it stands on Polish collaboration with the Nazi regime. Indeed, just over five years ago, the Polish parliament passed a law that made claims that Poles had any responsibility for, or participated in, crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust punishable by prison terms. 

The officials might back up their opposition to any suggestions that Poles contributed to the mass murder of Jews and other “undesirables” by simply citing the number of Polish recipients of Righteous Among the Nations awards by Yad Vashem. Thus far, over 7,000 Poles have been recognized for saving Jews, with The Netherlands second at just under 6,000.

However, if one were to place those numbers quantitatively, in the context of the size of the local Jewish community the Polish figure pales significantly. Before World War II, there were 3.3 million Jews living in Poland  – then the largest Jewish community in the world – compared with 140,000 in The Netherlands.

SO, WHAT drove Twardoch to take on the book’s name, and did he have any qualms about presenting readers with a rogue’s gallery of cold-blooded Jewish gangsters? 

“I am very interested in combined and complicated ethnic identities.”

Szczepan Twardoch

“I am very interested in combined and complicated ethnic identities,” he says, noting that it comes from very close to home. “My own ethnic identity is not a simple one. My roots are quite intermingled, between German and Silesian culture. I come from a home where three languages were spoken – Polish, Silesian and German.”

Hence, Twardoch’s focus on a figure who was a highly visible member of an ethnic minority in Poland, albeit a large ethnic community. “That is what interests me a lot,” he continues. It is a recurring theme. “All my writing is somewhat about that. It is about complex identities and so on. That’s why I have chosen a Jewish gangster as a protagonist.”

Twardoch clearly did his homework before setting fingers to computer keyboard. The passages about Inbar include references to the IDF hierarchy and military makeup here, which might have been written by an IDF veteran. The same goes for his descriptions of the Jewish way of life in general, which conjure up thoughts of his illustrious compatriot co-professional, 2018 Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, specifically her 2014 work The Books of Jacob, which mines rich, deep seams of hassidic sensibilities and shtetl life in Poland.

“My idea of being a writer is that the writer should read first. The most important duty of the writer is to educate himself or herself. So that’s what I do. I read first, then I write.” 

With Twardoch and Tokarczuk doing sterling work on addressing Jewish issues in their writing, may one surmise that there is growing interest in the area among members of the Polish literary community or, possibly, Poles as a whole? Twardoch isn’t quite sold on that idea. “I am not so sure I am ready to make such generalizations,” he says.

Still, there is some street-level collateral out there for such conjecture. “But, obviously, it is not only Olga and I who write about the pre-war Polish Jewish population and stuff. There is, for example, Piotr Pazinski, who is Jewish himself, who wrote two beautiful novels about Jewish Warsaw, also pre-war and also about the Shoah. He is also a grandson of people that survived [the Holocaust]. It is a subject which is obviously present in Polish literary circles.”

I RETURNED to the business of the official state line on the Holocaust and the taboo on inferring Polish complicity in the murder of Jews during and after WWII. Last week, as I sauntered around Swietokrzyska Park, in front of the colossal Stalinesque Palace of Culture and Science in central Warsaw, I came across a street poster inviting the public to pop along to the Dom Bez Kantów (House without Borders) cultural facility to view an exhibition about “Poles murdered by Germans for helping Jews.” The billboard ad exhorts us to “Explore their stories!” 

As aforementioned, there were thousands of non-Jewish Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. But Polish governmental efforts to push the positive notion by, for example, insisting that Israeli high school students who travel to Poland to take part in the March of the Living educational program learn about how some Poles went beyond the collaboration or bystander mold, raise questions about social conditioning. 

Be that as it may, I was delighted to learn that Twardoch has not been subjected to any constraints or gentle reminders to toe the official party line. “It is not difficult to write about such subjects [as antisemitism in Poland] today,” he says. “All my views are in total conflict with the official policy of the Polish government. I am highly critical of this government, and I say this in public very often. They know how much I am against their policies. Still, Poland is a regular liberal democratic country. No one is trying to gag me. No one is trying to put me in prison.” That’s good to hear.

Despite living some 300 kilometers from Warsaw, in German culture-influenced Upper Silesia, and saying he is “not Polish,” Twardoch admits to being enamored with the capital. 

That comes across loud and clear in The King, which contains numerous streets and locations around the city in great geographic detail. “I am not native to Warsaw, but I have spent a lot of time there. I think I spend a quarter of my time in Warsaw. To take care of my business.” But it’s not a matter of professional engagements.

“I like the city a lot. It is one of my two favorite cities in the world. The other one is Berlin. I think Warsaw is very vibrant, and very open to changes. It is not like other Polish cities, like Krakow and Poznan, where if you are not born there, you are always a stranger.”

When Twardoch settles on a theme, he seems to spare no effort in researching the subject matter and ensuring he has all the necessary information on board and at his eager fingertips. That, he says, helps to make up for some of his professional shortcomings. “My imagination is not so creative,” he notes.

You could have fooled me. You don’t get any sense of that from The King. “I need facts, I need pictures, I need maps which guide me through the city I want to describe. I have to work with facts, not something I would make up.” In an era of fake news, that sounds reassuring.

That ethos also leads Twardoch into the realms of bygone times. “Maybe that is why I mostly write historic novels, 20th century not older. I don’t write contemporary prose about contemporary times because I don’t feel I have a language for our times, and I feel one knows much more about history than about the world that is around us today.”

In view of the ease of Internet access to all kinds of current information and the incontrovertible fact that history always involves a degree of conjecture and personal interpretation – however learned – that sounds a little surprising. But Twardoch’s point was duly taken.

I am not a fan of overt portrayals of violence, but some of the detailed descriptions of clashes and physical punishment summarily dished out by Szapira and his ilk are gripping. “I do make it very graphic,” says Twardoch. “I wrote the book something like eight years ago. It was at a time when I was quite interested in the psychological aspects of violence and fighting.” True to his down-and-dirty approach, he made sure he had some hands-on knowledge to apply to his writing. “I started boxing when I began writing the book. I knew I wanted my protagonist to be a boxer. I couldn’t write about the physical experience without knowing it firsthand.”

Considering Twardoch’s corporeal experiential literary line of attack, it should be interesting to see how his oeuvre pans out after he makes his debut visit to these shores. ❖

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