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In the end, Tuszynska, while deeply sympathetic to Gran, is reluctant to draw firm conclusions about the events she chronicles. Partly as a result, “Vera Gran: The Accused” is not a very satisfying book.
It may not help that the writing has been filtered through two layers of translation: From the original Polish, Isabelle Jannes-Kalinowski has translated the book into French; Charles Ruas has translated from French into English. It is difficult to tell whether the occasionally stilted quality of the prose is a stylistic choice or an artifact of the translator’s awkward attempt to render literal meaning.
Much of the unease the book inspires is deliberate. Tuszynska says she is writing “a meditation on the nature of collaboration” rather than a conventional biography. Like Primo Levi, who famously wrote about “the gray zone” in “The Drowned and the Saved,” she asks just what collaboration means — and how we should judge it — when the only available choices are to cooperate or to die.
Tuszynska goes even further: “We are all collaborators. On a more or less grand scale, for a day or a lifetime. All that differentiates us are the experiences and the circumstances, which allow us to gauge the extent of our compromises.”
But assessing the nature of collaboration is different from ascertaining just what Gran did when her mettle was tested. Tusczynska’s narrative plunges readers into a maze, circling around facts and memories that don’t add up to a single verifiable truth. At issue is not just the metaphysics of collaboration, but determining what happened, and what can be proved to have happened .
Moving from description to metaphor, Tuszynska writes: “The drawers. How many have to be opened to find the true Vera? And where is she? Does she exist? At what depth, and by what devious turns, has she hidden beneath layers of invention, intentionally? Screens of shadows and illusions superimposed.”
Gran claims that it was Szpilman, the pianist, who was the collaborator. She says she saw him in the uniform of a Jewish policeman, herding Jews into cattle cars bound for Treblinka. “He dragged women by their hair,” she reported to the Shoah Foundation in 1996, and to Tuszynska.
But by the time we meet Gran, she is suffering from dementia. So her testimony may be as unreliable as the self-interested recollections of her detractors. That is a conundrum that Tuszynska never resolves and may not wish to, preferring to confront us with the frustrations and dead ends that are the biographer’s curse. Many readers, lacking her commitment to the subject, may prefer to opt out.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.