Wojdowski, Bogdan

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Nationality: Polish. Born: 1930. Career: Spent two years in the Warsaw Ghetto. Worked as a writer. Award: Second prize, Polish government literary contest, 1971, for Chleb rzucony umarlym.Died: Suicide, 1994.



Konotop. 1966.

Chleb rzucony umarlym. 1971; as Bread for the Departed, 1997.

Tamta strona. 1997.

Short Stories

Wakacje Hioba [Job's Summer]. 1962.

Maly czlowieczek, nieme ptasze, klatka i swiat. 1975.

Manius Bany. 1980.

Wybór opowiadan. 1981.

Krzywe drogi. 1987.


Proba bez kostiumu [Rehearsal without Costumes] (theatrical sketches). 1966.

Mit Szigalewa [The Myth of Shigalev] (literary sketches). 1982.


Critical Study:

"Bogdan Wojdowski, My Brother" by Henryk Grynberg, in New England Review, 18, Fall 1997, pp. 8-10.

* * *

The Holocaust dominated Bogdan Wojdowski's life and writing. His most essential literary works concern, both thematically and problematically, the physical and psychical outcomes of the Nazi extermination of the Jews in Poland under German occupation. They owe their powerful artistic expression and authenticity equally to Wojdowski's talent and his tragic biography. Wojdowski spent two nightmarish years in the Warsaw Ghetto. When he finally managed to get out of there, his mother's friends and the Council for Help to Jews (Żegota) supported his subsistence. Those caring Poles were addressed in his preface to Bread for the Departed when he said, "I spent the last years of the war 'on this side' among those who remained my close friends. I was told, 'these were absolutely infallible papers.' I didn't see any such papers. But what I saw was infallible people who put their own life at risk to save another man's life." Then the saved boy stayed among food and weapons smugglers, tended peasants' cows near Wyszków, and in the winter of 1943 hid with a partisans' group. He lived to see the liberation, and he returned to a totally demolished Warsaw with workers displaced from the capital city. That homelessness is quite reminiscent of Henryk Grynberg 's fortunes depicted in his The Jewish War (1965).

Both Wojdowski and Grynberg share the same traumatic experience of childhood. They made a similar type of debut in prose. Wojdowski published a collection of dismal short stories, Job's Summer (Wakacje Hioba ), in 1962, and Grynberg, who is six years his junior, made his debut with The "Antigone" Crew in 1963. The transition from minor narratives about immense misfortune to an epic synthesis of the truth about the nation's extermination, which was unprecedented in history and therefore hardly possible to relate, is distinctive of the two writers. Relating the Holocaust becomes still more difficult for a Jewish writer whose good fortunes helped him avoid being killed and who can never forget what he has been through and give up the memory of those who perished. Writing about the Holocaust stands for him as a categorical imperative. Therefore, a writer who has embarked on such a literary mission must neither experiment upon the structure of the novel nor fathom egotistically the mysteries of his soul. Wojdowski's knowledge of this fact was absolute when he directed "An open letter to the writers of the Shoah generation," where he stated, "Shoah is not just a theme to write about. It is a living pain, care and memory of the hurtful experience, a universal tragedy of disgraced humanity, a problematic question of man's existence on earth."

Twenty years after Bread for the Departed, this discourse perfectly justifies the origin of Wojdowski's outstanding novel and the whole literature as a testimony to the holocaust and an appeal to the readers' morally sensitive conscience. The same intentions underlined Samson (1948) by Kazimierz Brandys and a few narrative masterpieces by Adolf RudnickiShakespeare (1948), An Escape from the Bright Meadow (1948), and The Live and Dead Sea (1952). Wojdowski benefited from his predecessor-writers' literary experience. The critics noted that the author of Job's Summer owed a lot for his poetics to other Polish writers such as Tadeusz Borowski and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz.

Since Bread for the Departed came out in print, Wojdowski has been publicly considered as one of the most original and distinguished Holocaust writers. This opinion was further confirmed by his next collections of stories, which gave his principal theme its final shape that is suggestive of a special kind of hermeneutics or recurrent fictional motifs making a circling movement. David's going to the Umschlagplatz in the final scene of Bread for the Departed and the old tailor's coming back to the ghetto (as in the story "Passover" included in the collection Winding Roads [Krzywe drogi ]) mark costly obsessive returns both in literature and real life. And the more so for a Jewish survivor, who existed in a society with the warring party factions of communist Poland encouraging anti-Jewish campaigns in times of political crisis. Wojdowski calculated the cost of cultivating the memory of the Holocaust and the price he had to pay for being Jewish in the eschatological text Judaism—The Fate : "I have no longer a society to belong to, a society whose traditions make me recognise it, nor can a society recognise me. I am by myself. The bonds are broken. My loyalties towards the purpose and the values of living have been invalidated and no appearances can save me, for the limits of being have been violated."

As a writer, Wojdowski reached to the limits of human existence. As a man, he continued to search through the Holocaust for its existential, ethical, and artistic implications. He was passionate doing it. And like the other ex-Auschwitz prisoners—Borowski and Primo Levi —he wholeheartedly drifted toward his own self-destruction.

—Staniszław Gawliński

See the essay on Bread for the Departed.