Grynberg, Henryk

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Nationality: Polish. Born: Warsaw, 4 July 1936. Education: University of Warsaw, M.A. in journalism 1959; University of California, Los Angeles, 1969-71, M.A. in Russian literature 1971. Family: Married 1) Ruth Maria Meyers in 1964 (divorced 1966); 2) Krystyna Walczak in 1967, one daughter. Career: Actor and translator, Jewish State Theatre, Warsaw, 1959-67; secretary, Union of Workers of Culture and Art, 1966-67. Defected to the United States, 1967. Teaching assistant, Russian language and literature, University of California, Los Angeles, c. 1971; worked for the U.S. Information Agency and Voice of America, c. 1971-91. Also contributor and translator from English to Polish, Kultura (Paris), Wiadomosci (London), and America Illustrated.Awards: Annual literary prize, Koscielski Foundation, Switzerland, 1966, for Zydowska wonja; Tadeusz Borowski fellowship, Poland, 1966.



Zydowska wonja (novella). 1965; as Child of the Shadows, 1969.

Zwyciestow. 1969; as The Victory. 1993.

Zycie ideologiczine [Ideological Life]. 1975; with Zycie osobiste, 1992.

Zycie osobiste [Personal Life] (sequel to Zycie ideologiczine ). 1979; with Zycie ideologiczine, 1992.

Zycie codzienne i artystyczne [Everyday and Artistic Life]. 1980.

Kadisz. 1987.

Short Stories

Ekipa "Antygona" [The Antigona Crew]. 1963.

Szkice Rodzinne [Family Sketches]. 1989.

Drohobycz, Drohobycz. 1997.

Ojczyzna [Motherland]. 1999.


Swieto kamieni. 1964.

Antynostalgia [Anti-Nostalgia]. 1971.

Wiersze z Ameryki [Poems from America]. 1980.

Wrocilem: Wiersze Wybrane z lat 1964-1989 [I Have Returned: Poems 1964-1989]. 1991.

Rysuje w Pamieci [Sketching in Memory]. 1995.


Pamietnik Marii Koper [Maria Koper's Diary]. 1993.

Kronika [A Chronicle]. 1994.


Wsord nieobecnych. 1983.

Prawda nieartystyczna [The Nonartistic Truth] (essays). 1984.

Pomnik nad Potomakiem. 1989.

Zwyciestwo. 1990.

Dziedzictwo. 1993.

Dzieci Syjonu. 1994; as Children of Zion, 1997.

Yalde Tsiyon: Derekh ha-tela'ot shel yalde Teheran. 1995.

Memorbuch. 2000.

Ida Kaminska (1899-1980): Grande Dame of the Yiddish Theater, with Krystyna Fisher and Michael Steinlauf. 2001.


Critical Studies:

Polish Writing Today, edited by W. Weiniewska, 1967; Henryk Grynberg by Justyna Sobolewska, 2000.

* * *

World War II put an end to the happy childhood of Henryk Grynberg, who was three when Germans came to his native village in northeastern Poland and eight when he and his mother were rescued by the Red Army entering that region. Of his very large family only three people survived the Shoah: the writer and his mother, thanks to their "Aryan papers," and his uncle Aron, who many years later in Israel verified the author's knowledge about his family. Most of the writer's relatives died in Treblinka, and his father was murdered by a Polish bandit several months before the end of the war. Grynberg has no memory of the pre-catastrophe world. The Shoah is the world of his childhood memories, and this is the source of the power of expression in his writing. His basic creative method is that of talking about the Shoah in the most common manner. This is a counterworld described in a simple, sparse language. The artistic effect consists of the hiatus between the subject matter and the language. The writer gives up the literariness involving the decorum, which can be noticed in his debut collection of short stories, The Antigona Crew, in favor of the informative function. He also focuses on the composition of his works, using paradoxes, unexpected points, and rhetoric devices. "The Grave" is an example. This is the story of a Jew who avoided execution by escaping from the very brink of his grave. After the war he regularly comes to the spot of the might-have-been execution: "This is the only family grave … it is good to have a grave to look after, especially that it is my grave." The writer perceives himself as a calm chronicler of the genocide history. The Holocaust seen from the perspective of personal experience and later as a fragment of the history of European anti-Semitism is the main theme of his writing.

Another traumatic experience was the contact with post-Shoah anti-Semitism during the liberation and in Communist Poland. The censorship, the growing atmosphere of state anti-Semitism, and the impossibility of artistic expression of the truth were the reasons for his emigration. In 1967 he went to California, where his mother and stepfather lived. In America Grynberg continued writing in Polish, and his works were published by Polish immigration circles.

Apart from the Holocaust evidence and the diagnosis of anti-Semitism the identity problem is another crucial theme of Grynberg's prose and poetry. All other trends of his writing are connected with it. This is the history of a false identity—the life with the Aryan papers, the denial of Jewishness, the acceptance of the identity imposed and defined by anti-Semites. On the opposite pole we have the conscious identification, the free choice of being a Jew, and the acceptance of all the ethical obligations resulting from that fact. This evolution of Grynberg's characters and literary narrators does not always parallel the evolution of the author's awareness. The crucial moment for him was when he joined Ida Kaminska's Jewish Theater in Warsaw, which was the starting point of his literary career.

The narrator of his prose and the persona of his poetry usually bear the author's features. Memory, honesty, and compassion are the elements determining his attitude toward the described world. For the truth's sake he gives more details of his family's fate during the Shoah. After the downfall of Communism he visits Poland and solves the mystery of his father's death. In The Heritage, consisting of the conversations with the inhabitants of his native neighborhood, he gives the name of the murderer and closes the autobiographical elements in his writing.

From then on Grynberg described the fates of others, recreating them on the basis of notes, old documents, and memoirs. Such is the nature of Maria Koper's Diary , A Chronicle, a play about the Lodz ghetto; The Cabaret on the Other Side, a play about Wladyslaw Szlengel's cabaret in the Warsaw ghetto; Children of Zion, a novel about the fates of Jewish children who survived the Holocaust in the lagers of communist Russia; and The Memorbuch, a literary presentation of the life of Adam Bromberg, a Polish Communist from before the war who survived in Russia, was an official publisher in Poland, emigrated in 1968, and died in Sweden. These works should be perceived as the fulfillment of the duty toward the Jewish nation, which is to be understood as identification with its fate and suffering and the obligation to express the essence of its history.

The latter of the enumerated books by Grynberg, The Memorbuch, is an extensive work. Bromberg's recollections intermingle with the minutes from the Polish parliamentary sessions before the war, which are the documents of anti-Semitism in the late 1930s. There are also some encyclopedic entries providing information on Jewish history, primarily on persecutions by the Christians in all places connected with Bromberg's life. The author intended to make The Memorbuch a voice concerning European or Christian anti-Semitism, which created the basis for the Holocaust through preaching hatred. It is also a story of the expulsion of the Jews from Poland in March 1968 by the Communist authorities and the passive acceptance of the Polish society. Therefore anti-Semitism is an open and eternal problem, and the memory of persecutions constitutes the obligation and the sense of writing.

Grynberg is also the author of seven books of poetry in which the dominating elements are the Holocaust and the identity problem. The perception of the Shoah in verse leads to an even more condensed dimension, and it unites the individual pain with the perspective of the contention with God, which is so characteristic of Jewish culture.

—Kazimierz Adamczyk

See the essays on Child of the Shadows and The Victory.