We are all collaborators. On a more or less grand scale, for a day or a lifetime. All that differentiates us are the experiences and the circumstances, which allow us to gauge the extent of our compromises.
— Agata Tuszynska, Vera Gran: The Accused
IN HISTORIAN AND POET Agata Tuszynska’s metaphysical inquest into the nature of collaboration, she unravels the story of Vera Gran, celebrated singer of the Warsaw Ghetto, who was accused after the war of collaborating with the Germans.
Collaborate. A word that usually means to work cooperatively, to create together — a joyous word when painters collaborate on a mural, when a playwright and a director and actors mount a play. The sinister meaning of that word did not appear in European dictionaries until 1940, in Vichy France. In Polish, kolaboracja.
How can we understand this concept, we who did not have the misfortune to live in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 or in Chartres in 1944, when Robert Capa photographed a French crowd jeering a young woman, her head shaved bald, clutching to her breast an infant fathered by a German soldier?
“All that differentiates us,” Tuszynska writes, “are the experiences and circumstances which allow us to gauge the extent of our compromises.” In Manhattan recently, a man shoves another man onto the tracks in front of the oncoming Q train. What will you do in those seconds while the victim still clings to the side of the platform? How fast are your reflexes? What are you willing to risk? Your life? Your arm? “No one’s story exists out of historical context,” Tuszynska reminds us, and besides, who can demand heroic behavior from others?
“History often places us in the context of a tragic choice,” Tuszynska observes. “We collaborate with fate, we come to terms with it. We are capable of justifying nearly all our weaknesses.”
For Tuszynska, the Warsaw ghetto is a “reference point.” Though the survivors say they are the only ones who can understand life in a ghetto, Tuszynska dares to try and understand. She has her reasons. “I want to survive and know the price of survival,” she writes. “I want to know. Perhaps it’s because of that that I found Vera.”
It is a diminished 87-year-old woman in a pink dressing gown who finally cracks open the door of her Paris apartment to Tuszynska’s persistent knock. It’s 2003, the war is long over, and Vera Gran regards Tuszynska with suspicion. She suffers, the author tells us, from a persecution complex. For a week, they only get as far as the landing to the apartment. “We are on the threshold of trust.” Tuszynska, who counts among her mentors the great journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, has an unerring eye for the telling detail, and she uses her emotional response to a situation as a barometer. “Periodically the lights went out in the stairwell. Then my feelings of compassion grew until the lights came back on.”
Finally allowed entrance, Tuszynska finds a “dark and disturbing bunker” with stacks of yellowed newspapers, clippings, lists of bills, dried bouquets, concert photographs, musical scores, “heaped up day in, day out, successive layers like a massive tottering fortress.”
The prickly old woman in the pink dressing gown is a paranoid survivor, a woman who has lived under th...read more