Bread for the Departed (Chleb Rzucony Umarlym)

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BREAD FOR THE DEPARTED (Chleb rzucony umarlym)

Novel by Bogdan Wojdowski, 1971

Bogdan Wojdowski's extensive novel Bread for the Departed, published in English translation in 1997, covers a strictly limited period of time. The book starts with the formal establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto and ends with the Nazi deportation of the Jewish inhabitants numbering 300,000 in September 1942. The novel is considered important in the world of literature for its comprehensive and reliable account of the specific historical events and its elaborate artistic composition. The principal character of the book, David Fremde, a son to an upholsterer, Jakow, is of the same age as Wojdowski was in his days in the ghetto. Wojdowski's father, Szymon Jakub Wojdowski, ran a carpentry shop on the corner of Srebrna and Towarowa streets, and David was the author's real name. Those autobiographical allusions reinforce the general expression of the novel. The arrangement of the book offers a panorama of the ghetto community divided along economic, professional, and social lines—from the Jewish elite to poor craftsmen to thieves and wretched prostitutes.

The wide perspective of the novel determines its composition. There is no uniform plot over a few hundred pages. The book is episodic with snapshot presentations of various groups of people living in the minor ghetto. The jargon they speak is far from grammatical by Polish, German, and Yiddish standards. Wojdowski aims at rendering the ghetto reality as exactly as he remembers it from his childhood. Therefore, innumerable instances of human degradation caused by brutal repression, the increasingly intensive hunger, and the decimating diseases abound in the book, so naturalistic and drastic in detail. The writer neither endorses nor condemns the human acts dismissed abhorrently by the Nazi propaganda as "Juden, Lause, Fleckfieber" ("Jews, lice, typhus"). And by no means does he approve of reducing a humiliated Jew to animal instincts and a merciless fight for bread to stay alive at any price. That is evident due to the unrealistic features of Wojdowski's poetics applied in the narrative, which makes the book a special kind of prose focused on a narrow group of people, a historically biographical documentary and a poetic requiem for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Bread for the Departed places spiritual values in two planes—in the principal character's psychic, in his dreams and fantastic associations, and in feverish David's somnambular lyricism. David's personal data is clearly symbolic. His surname Fremde stands for a foreigner, an alien. And the origin of his forename can be traced to another source of religious beliefs—to the Bible. That was also where the Jewish faith, and not only it, originated from. Wojdowski took the opening sentence for his ghetto epic from the Bible. This introductory utterance brings to David's memory the reminiscence of his father's prayers and of the happy days they had lived before their captivity in the ghetto. Then the Holocaust began. The patriarch of the family, the most pious one of all, has the child taken away from his parents and sent to the Aryan side of the wall. He also instructs David, "Forget you are Jewish. You must forget to stay alive … Live a wild dog's life. Skirt away people but go on living … Forget who you are. Forget who your father and mother are. Forget who your grandparents were … You must have a heart of stone." The grandson finds that desperate advice as a curse of an old man dying of starvation. And this is not the only curse to be found in the novel. David's father is even more blasphemous arguing with God, "Jakow, Jakow. Where are you? … I am here. I am dying therefore I am."

With Wojdowski neither the Bible nor René Descartes's rationalistic philosophy can account for the cause and the scale of innocent Jews' suffering. The logic of faith is hopeless when faced with the reality of Shoah. Wojdowski, who is making repeated references to the Holy Books and Judaic history, is quite aware that drawing any analogy between Gomorrah and the ghetto is groundless. Also interpreting the present Jewish tragedy in terms of religious guilt and punishment is futile. Nevertheless both the writer and the victims of the Nazi extermination are haunted by the same nagging question, "Why should they have been killed, forsaken by the indifferent world?" The same passionate determination to find the answer is revealed in The World of Stone (1948), a collection of stories by Tadeusz Borowski , and in And the World Remained Silent (1956), a literary interpretation of the Auschwitz experience by Elie Wiesel.

The title of Wojdowski's novel can be understood both realistically and symbolically. On the real side there is an authentic event when German soldiers shoot dead a Polish tram driver who secretly delivered bread to starving Jews in the ghetto. The symbolic aspect needs a confrontation with What I Read to the Dead, a narrative by Wladyslaw Szlengel , who was killed in 1943. In this sense "the dead" describes figuratively the condition of the captives living in the Warsaw Ghetto. And the book itself becomes a voice from beyond the grave calling out to the readers.

Wojdowski goes another way. He himself was saved from extermination, and after years he preserves the memory of those exterminated. His novel symbolically keeps them alive just as bread kept alive the ghetto inhabitants. The two books differ fundamentally for the stands their authors assume. Szlengel wrote his What I Read to the Dead in the ghetto, and that made him assume a victim's perspective. Wojdowski enjoyed liberty writing Bread for the Departed, and therefore his perspective was that of a witness to the Holocaust. That determined his literary strategy. Naturally it became a Jewish survivor's obligation to testify to the Holocaust and reproach the world for the suffering of millions of the victims of Hitler's Nazi ideology.

Wojdowski's autobiographical story breaks in autumn 1942, before the heroic uprising of the Jewish insurgents on 13 April 1943 followed by the final liquidation of the ghetto. The Jewish uprising became a literary theme for The Holy Week (1945) by Jerzy Andrzejewski and Easter (1947) by Adolf Rudnicki. Bread for the Departed is closely related in subject matter to A Man with a Cart (1961) by Stanisław Wygodzki and A Merchant of Lodz (1963) by Rudnicki. These two novels give a realistic and expressive relation of how life looked in the ghettos of Będzin and Lodz. Wojdowski, Rudnicki, and Wygodzki's stylistics are poles apart with that of The Liberal's Death (1947) by Artur Sandauer, an ironic-grotesque story of a Jewish intellectual in a ghetto in the former Polish eastern borderlands.

Wojdowski's novel seems the most closely related to The Empty Water (1964), an autobiographical book by Krystyna Żywulska, who survived the ghetto and Auschwitz pretending to be Aryan. Żywulska's novel, less elaborate in its composition, deals with similar episodes of the ghetto anguish and the same torturers.

Wojdowski made use of his predecessors' literary achievements, but he retained his individual character no matter what he exploited—the aesthetic standards of realism, lyrical pathos, or the style of elegy and prayer. His continuous inclination toward pursuing the Holocaust experience was further confirmed in his later collections of stories. A Little Man, a Dumb Bird, a Cage and the World (1975; Mały człowieczek, niemę ptaszę, klatka i świat ) is a lyrical counterpart of his remarkable novel. His later narratives of the 1970s and '80s touch the same questions of the Jewish tragedy and reveal Wojdowski's predilection for the parabolic composition. This is a general tendency of Holocaust literature with an individual experience being translated into a universal one and becoming archetypal.

—Stanisław Gawliński