Stranger than Fiction [Interview with Writer Mikołaj Grynberg]

Excerpt from the article:

He used to think his grandparents had phone numbers tattooed on their forearms. His father used to count the steps to the basement of the building in the Marymont district where he hid during the war. He used to get beaten up at school for murdering Jesus.

Years later, he organized his fears in the book Rejwach, hoping to lessen the sorrow. Writing down other people’s stories was meant to help alleviate the pain—but it didn’t really work.


Mikołaj Grynberg: Could you tell which stories were mine?

Ula Rybicka: The one about a boy at summer camp?

Yes, Niemiec (The German) is about me. So is U Hitlera (At Hitler’s), though I state it explicitly in that one. There’s also the story about a chair. It includes a bit about an Israeli man who comes to Poland and counts his steps. That is the story of my dad. When I was twelve, my dad took us for a walk around Marymont [a district in Warsaw]. It was winter. Suddenly he crossed the street and said, “Come on, let me show you something.” We walked around in the snow for a while until he suddenly said, “I lived here, in this very house, during the war.” There wasn’t a house there anymore, only foundations. Dad walked around it until he finally found the place where the entrance used to be. He stood in front of the porch steps, closed his eyes and said, “You would walk five steps forward, then turn left and take four, then two steps to the right, and that’s where the trapdoor used to be.” He opened his eyes in front of a hatch that used to lead to the basement. Then he told us a story I wasn’t ready to hear. It wasn’t until years later that I understood where he had taken us.

How did you go about looking for stories similar to your own?

Before publishing the book Auschwitz – co ja tu robię? (Auschwitz. What am I doing here?) I spent a lot of time at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I would approach visitors with one question: what are you doing here? After a while I went to Israel to talk to Holocaust survivors. Then, at some point, you simply become known as someone working on this topic and the stories start to find you. However, most people expect that if they tell me a story I’ll publish it. And that’s why I keep receiving them—people want their memories to be passed on to other peoples’ memory. Ultimately, I can only include a small portion of all the material I gather in any given book. A lot of people are disappointed when I don’t use their story. Everyone feels that their story is the one worth telling. And they are right.

Translation: Aga Zano

Proofreading: Barbara Pendzich, Maximilian Eisenhardt

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