Patient goes to doctor. “Doctor,” he says, “you have to help me, I am in desperate need. I’m pissing everywhere.” Doctor gives him a tablet and tells him to come back. In a few days as agreed the patient comes back. “Hello doctor, how are you, how is your wife?” the patient says cheerfully. “What a positively lovely day it is.” The doctor is bemused and asks: “And how is your condition?” “Oh, it’s great, doctor. I’m pissing everywhere but I don’t give a fuck about it anymore.”
Roman Polanski told this joke to Vera Wasowski sometime in the 1960s when they saw each other in London. Polanski lived in London then, post-Poland, pre-Hollywood. He took Vera to some fancy club frequented, so he mentioned in passing, by Mick Jagger. She remembers the joke but forgets the club’s name. It was the Ad Lib club—see a 1983 Clive James interview with Polanski, post-Hollywood by then.
Vera in the 1960s was living in Australia, dreamy dull flatland which was nothing much like London of the 1960s, not at all like Warsaw of the 1950s—what are the stats? Gone, 85 to 90 percent of it, in the war. The “most agonizing spot in the whole of terrorized Europe” said poet Czeslaw Milosz yet a city which allowed the flourishing, only a few years later, of people Vera calls, insistently, “intellectual elites.” She says “top.” She says “world class.”
They’d all come together, filmmakers, journalists, actors, intellectuals, Andrzej Wajda in whose Pokolenie Polanski made his acting debut, Vera, her journalist-husband Jan; they would get in one room. And sparks! Wasn’t the doctor-patient joke actually about them? The ability to not give a fuck—was it not one of the few freedoms possible in their country now it had been Stalinized? Whatever was being surrendered and taken over in the outside world, the inside of one’s head was one potentially unreachable place.
Most of the people around Vera and Jan in Warsaw in the 1950s had that place inside that belonged to them only. The state’s fingerprints were all over work you did, streets you walked, the whole school-university-job-pension track. You had to register your typewriters. The air itself was like that: breathe in and out, once, and you were implicated.
But there were ways of being free or at least acting as if you were free, ways of blending with no wallpaper. Watch Vera and Jan and you’d know. It was possible to cultivate a willed conspicuousness. To banish meekness. And channel abandonment.
Let’s say you were not circumspect about the volume at which you spoke in public and not fastidiously self-censoring about the contents of your speech either, and your quantities of alcohol drunk weren’t moderate and you were, maybe, borderline scandalous in how you did love, sex, family while the poems you’d memorized were poems of Adam Mickiewicz, who considered Poland the Christ of nations, not those by some servility-extolling, drum-beating Party stooge.
Poetry, art, drinking, affairs. These were not luxuries or sweeteners, no. Not extra-political digressions. It was all too easy to rage deep inside at a regime that, as poet Adam Zagajewski wrote, had no time for agriculture or architecture or literature or the railway system but time without limit for its army, police, speeches, parades. The trick said Zagajewski was “to conquer totalitarianism in passing, on our way to greater things.” Lest you become defined by your opposition to it. Lest you get enslaved by the fight against it. So many surrounding you did. One of the 20th century’s lessons went precisely: sooner or later you become what you fight. So: poetry, art, drinking, affairs… Essential inoculations?
No. Yes. What they did was produce a wildness, a state of constant incalculable movement of the soul. As long as the soul kept moving, expanding, opening its chambers, speeding up and slowing down like a wise fugitive who knows how to run in large open spaces while evading a sniper lying in wait, it could not be co-opted fully. Were these inoculations enough? Yes. No.
To most questions about Poland lurk two answers minimum. In Milosz’s book The Captive Mind is a version, more an inversion, of Polanski’s doctor joke. The “Pill of Murti-Bing,” a fictional wonderdrug Milosz encountered in a little-known 1927 Polish novel by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, soothes nagging dread, making those who pop it “impervious to any metaphysical concerns” and, soon enough, welcoming of imminent invader dictatorships from the East.
Witkiewicz killed himself on September 18th, 1939 after learning the Red Army had crossed Poland’s eastern border. Milosz defected to the West in 1951 after spending the entire five years of German occupation in Warsaw. Perhaps the doubleness of the doctor joke was always there. Perhaps the doubleness of the joke was the joke.
When Poland was overrun Polanski was six. Vera—a year younger. Out of a million Polish Jewish children younger than 14 about 5,000 were alive by war’s end. Most survived the way Polanski and Vera survived, hiding in convents, boarding schools, orphanages, on farms, in attics, with Christian families. In holes, caves, forests, between false walls, in cupboards.
Jan’s survival was different; he was in Kazakhstan. Jan’s father, editor of a Jewish newspaper when Jewish newspapers still existed in Poland, had the foresight to get his family out. At their second romantic dinner Vera told Jan about what happened to her. She was brief, rolled the whole thing into a few sentences, no drawn-out sagas. He, her formidable future husband, could not drive back tears.
Vera and Jan stayed in Warsaw until the late 1950s. They were happy, on fire, in a bubble of their own. It’s rare you hear of people having the time of their lives in postwar Poland, Jews no less. Bigmouthed, bigheaded, visible-from-outer-space Jews. Everyone knows when the war ended virtually no Jews were left in Warsaw—same Warsaw that before 1939 had the second-largest Jewish community after New York—but Vera and Jan were still there, Polanski was there.
There were, Vera says, plenty of Jews among their friends. Many, like Vera, were not Warsawians to start with. Most belonged to a special category best described by poet Aleksander Wat. (Try speaking about Poland without turning to its poets. Impossible: perhaps it’s because as philosopher Agamben wrote in Remnants of Auschwitz “the ‘witness’ gesture is also that of the poet.”) Wat, when asked whether he was Polish or Jewish, replied “I’m Polish-Polish and Jewish-Jewish.” You were not one or the other, you were both at twice the intensity. Some of the most prominent professors at Warsaw University where Vera studied journalism, a degree she regarded as brilliant not least because of the quality of the teaching faculty and breadth of its intellectual concerns, were Jewish too, and most of them, these last professors standing, would be expelled from their positions in the late 1960s when Władysław Gomułka’s “anti-Zionist” campaign took care of the remnants of the city’s Jewish intelligentsia.
Vera and Jan considered leaving only when they glimpsed, as she puts it, “anti-Semitism go bananas.” It had never gone away, that indestructible Polish anti-Semitism. It was there waiting bitter, capable of murder, for survivors straight after the war. Come 1956—Gomułka’s burst of de-Stalinization—it soared like a long-winged bird.
One night in 1956 they were all sitting in a nightclub. “A very high-profile group,” Vera says, “of friends. The top intellectual group.” Fifty-six: time of a peculiarly semi-totalitarian government that “allowed one to think but not to speak, allowed one to hum but forbade singing, allowed one to rest but didn’t allow one to work, allowed one to enter a church but would not consent to have one leave it”—Zagajewski, with his glorious precision.
Strange, strange times and at some point the nightclub conversation took a turn and they were talking about the next Holocaust in Poland. Was it, in fact, beyond contemplation? And one man in their group, a famous actor, non-Jewish, dead now, got on his knees, in jest, or maybe in a moment of intense actorly sincerity, and declared facing Vera—she was, you can safely assume, the most dazzling woman in that club—“I would hide you. Don’t worry.”
This did it for her. How could anyone entertain on any level the possibility of another Holocaust? In Poland of all places, so soon after. Hiding her, oh you great, fearless benefactor— she felt sick.
Nathan Englander has a story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” a reworking of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Englander’s story is about the first afternoon together in god knows how long for two middle-aged Jewish couples. The wives, Debbie and Lauren, used to be best friends at their orthodox all-girls school in New York. Then they got married. Deb stayed in the States, turned secular, had a son, bought a house with a pool; Lauren ran to Israel, turned Hasidic, had ten daughters, she’s Shoshana not Lauren now.
The couples meet in the south Florida house of the couple who stayed put. They talk, drink vodka, smoke the dope Deb’s son hid in the laundry, search the pantry for kosher food (munchies) after some “mixed dancing” in the rain and it is all painfully tense, especially between the husbands, and, more than once, it is painfully beautiful too.
That pantry and the bathroom next to it are designed in such a way they can be sealed from the rest of the house. Put a wall up and no one would ever know. Deb whose grandparents were born in the Bronx (someone please calculate how many miles from Europe) made it so, and the pantry is stacked with food and Deb likes to play a game, a serious thought experiment she says, an active pathology thinks her husband who nonetheless plays along this time, called the Anne Frank game. Otherwise known as the Who Will Hide Me? game or the Righteous Gentile game. Self-explanatory. And Lauren takes it on and after a while she says, you know, you can play it against yourselves too—if one of you wasn’t Jewish, would you hide the other? And at first it seems nonsensical but then they do try that one on. Then they do.
In Carver’s story, the couples drink and they talk about love and when they finish they’ve talked themselves into some new and frightening world order. (The last passage gives a clue: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”) In Englander’s story too the two couples cannot move by the end. They’ve unleashed something and who knows if they can walk back from it. Or back to where?
Critics—some, not all—have written an American Holocaust is so insane Englander’s game is meaningless. Worse: it’s unforgivably relativist, insultingly moralizing. Surely though to live in the shadow of the great holocausts of the 20th century is to live with these questions. And surely the Anne Frank game is only as obscene in America or Australia, now, as in the 1950s in Poland where Vera had to face the actor on his expressive knees.
It—and the Plantation Owner game? the Slave Merchant game? the NKVD game?— has to be obscene wherever you play it, because to contemplate people being forced again into those choices is intolerable, and because talking about it if you didn’t live it and not talking about it—as if it could never happen to you and yours, as if anyone could ever be immune or exempt, as if you would know what to do if it came to your door—are as obscene as each other.
Eva S, born in Bratislava, is speaking 50 years after the war in Paul Valent’s book Child Survivors of the Holocaust: “Whenever I come into a room, I feel I have to decide who is to live. Even at the dinner table with my children, I think ‘my God, whom would I choose if I had to?’” Eva S was at Auschwitz with her younger sister Marta. Both Eva and Marta were selected for his experiments by Dr. Mengele. Mengele made children play a Farmer Wants a Wife game in which they believed they were picking a child who would go on to die.Strange, strange times and at some point the nightclub conversation took a turn and they were talking about the next Holocaust in Poland.
Valent describes Mengele’s game as the ultimate in evil. Vera was spared having to choose but, as a child, saw others’ soul-eviscerating choices. Or perhaps survivors are never spared. Perhaps the knowledge of the choices is always with them and it leads them through life, this knowledge, like an Ariadne’s thread.
In a different lifetime after Jan’s death from chronic alcoholism in Australia, Vera will seriously consider going back to Poland. She will say to herself, “What the fuck am I doing in Australia?” A friend, the head of a TV station in Warsaw, promises her a job pretty much on arrival. She goes for a visit. And one day walking someplace in the center of Warsaw, people everywhere, sun shining, she will see on a wall juden raus all freshly sprayed and glistening in its newness. And she will know what maybe she had always known—no coming back.
Eva Hoffman, born in Poland two months after the war to Holocaust survivor parents, speaks of “a head-on clash of two martyrological memories” of the war on Polish soil—clash of the Polish, the Jewish. To both, the “desperate defensiveness and bitterness of the mutual accusations . . . appear . . . as a mockery of their own tragedy, and a travesty of their moral truth.”
In Australia, to which he never reconciled himself, Jan would remember the people around them in Warsaw—their circle—and lament Vera’s willingness to “lower her intellectual standards.” He never “lowered” his. What to do with the unfairness of it all? She did not want to come to Australia. It was Israel she was pining for after the war when Israel was not even Israel yet. She pined for it again in the 1950s.
First time her mother stopped her; the second time, Jan. “I am not going to replace one totalitarian country with another,” he said. This is how they—Vera, Jan, Vera’s son from her first marriage, Vera’s mother—ended up in Australia. That Jan didn’t “lower his standards” would in time become a familiar tragedy of the intellectual in exile never quite making peace with the new country.
She made it of course. She would have made it on Mars in a paper bag like Matt Damon in that movie The Martian. What was being in Australia compared to the childhood she had? Vera made it and she stayed true to the Vera she became in Warsaw. How many can say that?
Excerpted from Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin. Used with permission of Transit Books. Copyright © 2018 by Maria Tumarkin.