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Child of the Shadows (Zydowska Wojna)

CHILD OF THE SHADOWS (Zydowska wojna)

Novel by Henryk Grynberg, 1965

Henryk Grynberg published Child of the Shadows in 1965 in Poland under the title Zydowska wojna ("The Jewish War") corresponding to the work by Joseph Flavius from the first century. That original title is important because the author intended to argue with a certain anti-Semitic stereotype emphasizing the passive attitude of the Jews in the face of the Holocaust. The English title links Grynberg's book too obviously to the literature concerned with the experiences of the children of the Holocaust, and thus it veils its thematic richness. The writer points out that the heroic, though passive, struggle for each hour and day of life was for the Jews the only possible form of fighting.

The audience learns that the author's younger brother, sent into hiding with a peasant family, was recognized as a Jewish child and killed. He fell into the hands of his murderers because of the circumcision—a symbol of the covenant between Abraham and God. Clear autobiographical denotations are apparent in Grynberg's introduction to this book, which is a eulogy for the author's mother.

Child of the Shadows, published in English translation in 1969, is divided into two parts. The first describes the situation of the author's family in the first months of the German occupation of Poland, beginning with the eviction and ending with the escape on the night preceding the deportation of the Jewish community to Treblinka and with the protagonist's separation from his father, who bought Aryan documents for his wife and son and then, because of his Semitic features, hid in forests but did not survive the war. The second part deals with the life with the "Aryan papers," first in Warsaw and later in the country. The novel concludes with the coming of the Red Army in the summer of 1944.

In this tiny book by Grynberg the reader will easily identify a number of typical situations determining the fate of the Jews during the Shoah such as evictions, deprivation of property, forced labor, spontaneous murders, organized murders, loneliness, fear of denunciation, blackmail, paying for survival, the life with the Aryan papers, and rejection of Jewish identity—but also the rescue thanks to the help of some Poles. Such a fate of a Polish Jew, trapped between the hunt for victims and the help offered by a fellow man, is expressed in a brief and ingenious way in the most cruel sentence in the novel: "Praised be the Lord, Mr. Sliwa, we are coming to you to look for Jews." Here, uttering a Christian greeting, a Polish peasant alarms another one—the one who keeps the protagonist and his family in hiding.

In Child of the Shadows the characteristics of Grynberg's writing and his conception of literature became crystallized. It is also the first of the series of four books with the same protagonist, all of which constitute a chronicle of life during the Holocaust and under Communism. Their author is concerned with the various forms of Nazi, Polish, communist, and religious anti-Semitism. He also strongly emphasizes another great issue: the problem of identity.

The life with the Aryan papers requires constant alertness, a talent for mimicry, and the lack of physical likeness to a Jew. It means a constant fear of being recognized by the Poles. The narrator and protagonist of the novel is brought up as a Catholic child, and his mother teaches Polish and religion to anti-Semites. In church her son learns that the Jews killed Jesus Christ, and he asks his mother an anti-Semitic question: Why? "I don't know, sonny," she replies, "but I think that if he had not been born among the Jews, the Gentiles would have killed him." This answer invalidates religious anti-Semitism.

Grynberg's power of the artistic description of his family history stems not only from the authenticity of personal experience but also from the form of its presentation. The language of the narrative is very sparse, limited to a matter-of-fact, reporting style. It avoids revealing emotions and imitates the awkward language of a child with a poor command of vocabulary. The narrator is a survivor who lives in the post-Shoah world. The tension between the discourse of a child and the perspective of the author who possesses a post-war knowledge about the catastrophe is the source of the rhetoric of paradox. The world of the novel is in fact a counterworld described in a neutral and sometimes naive language.

—Kazimierz Adamczyk

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