● Vera Gran: The Accused
By Agata Tuszynska
Translated from the French of Isabelle Jannes-Kalinowski by Charles Ruas
Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $28.95
To contemporary American readers, the name Vera Gran may be unfamiliar. But Gran was a celebrated singer, a beauty with an unusually deep voice and a passionate following in Poland and across Europe.
Gran (born Grynberg) wasn’t just renowned; her fate was complex and disturbing, as Agata Tuszynska’s biography “Vera Gran: The Accused” makes clear. Along with other Jews, she was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland. There she continued to perform, often accompanied by Wladislaw Szpilman, the subject of Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski’s film, “The Pianist.”
While the ghetto starved, Gran led a relatively privileged life as a well-paid entertainer — until the deportations to Treblinka began. At that point, leaving her beloved mother and the rest of her family behind, she managed to flee. Under the protection of her doctor-husband, a Pole who successfully concealed his own Jewish background, she lived quietly in a small farm town until the war ended.
Survival, when so many millions died, had its price. Gran was attacked — mainly by other Jewish survivors, including Szpilman — as a collaborator who had saved herself by befriending Nazis and their Jewish agents, and perhaps by informing on other Jews. Gran insisted on her innocence and said she funded and ran an orphanage for the ghetto’s children. She did sing at one Nazi party, she admitted, but only because she feared the consequences of refusing.
After the war, with revenge the order of the day, Gran was imprisoned and interrogated, defended and exonerated, then accused all over again in a seemingly endless post-Holocaust nightmare. Though no court would ever convict her on the rumors that passed as evidence, neither could she win a defamation case she eventually brought in Israel. And although she resumed her singing career to considerable acclaim, apparently she was never truly happy.
By the time Agata Tuszynska, a Polish poet and biographer, finds Gran living alone in a Paris apartment, the old woman is completely isolated, fearful and delusional. She is a hoarder, buried in papers and mementos. Paranoia has taken over her life, aggravated by the Polanski film that made Szpilman into a hero and excised her completely.
“He films me nonstop,” she now complains, without specifying who her tormentor is. “Even in the toilet — I cannot go without being watched, I always have to cover myself. It’s unbearable…. They come every night. To rob me. Sometimes they trip over the shopping cart that I place in front of the door as a barricade.”
Nevertheless, Tuszynska manages to gain Gran’s trust, as well as access to her papers. In addition to five years of intermittent, meandering conversations with the singer, Tuszynska conducts a full-fledged investigation: She interviews Gran’s acquaintances, friends and detractors; pores over trial records and other archival documents, and reads letters from her husband Kazimierz Jezierski, who saved her and who seems never to have stopped loving her during their decades apart.