Underneath Cliches About Art, Hidden Wells of History

By Robert Rosenberg

Published January 30, 2004, issue of January 30, 2004.
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Tales of Grabowski

By John Auerbach

The Toby Press, 307 pages, $19.95.

The Owl & Other Stories

By John Auerbach

The Toby Press, 306 pages, $19.95.

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although it’s common for critics to dismiss the link between an author’s biography and his fiction, novelists and storytellers well know that the ties between work and life are more intimate and incestuous than they care to admit. underneath the clichés about art and language and imagination lies the hidden well of history and identity, the nightmare from which the artist is trying to wake, of which art is but a faint echo. these issues — memoir versus fiction, truth as opposed to mere tale — are but some that spring to mind in considering novelist john auerbach’s “tales of grabowski” and “the owl & other stories.”

Auerbach, who died just as these works were being readied for publication, was a graduate of that bitter school, the 20th century. The commencement of the Second World War found him an infantryman in the Polish army, a military bred on romanticized notions of war that found itself face-to-face with the Nazi juggernaut. In the aftermath of Poland’s swift, humiliating defeat, Auerbach returned to Warsaw and, recognizing the fate that awaited those who did nothing, decided to act: He obtained on the black market the baptismal certificate of one Jan Krokowski, a Polish Catholic killed in service, and escaped from the ghetto to the “free” side, passing for a non-Jew. It was 1941: Four more years remained in a war that would result in the destruction of European Jewry and leave the continent incomprehensibly scarred. Assigned to a shipyard inside Germany, Auerbach made contact with an Argentine merchant sailor who was spying for the Allies and began to pass along information. In an attempt to join the fight against Germany, he stole a boat and tried to sail to Sweden. He was no great sailor, though, and after washing ashore, was captured. Amazingly, his Jewishness was not discovered — not even in Stutthof, the Gestapo prison where he was sent for having stolen the boat. Following the war, Auerbach made his way to Israel, where he became a member of Kibbutz Sdot Yam and signed on to Israel’s nascent merchant marine. After the death of his son in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, he retired from the seas, devoting himself to writing.

It was a life, in short, that could have been taken from the works of Joseph Conrad, another Pole, sailor and novelist. And as if to impress upon readers that very point, Auerbach produced his work not in Polish nor in Hebrew, but — like Conrad — in English, a language acquired in the wreckage that was his life. In the hands of a lesser writer, such a life might well provide the source (and serve as an excuse) for work at once melodramatic and sentimental. But happily, like Conrad before him, Auerbach took his life and transformed it into original, poignant pieces of art.

The novella “Transformations,” which makes up the bulk of “Tales of Grabowski,” opens in a train compartment headed toward Germany. It is night, the men in the dimly lit compartment are asleep but for one: Grabowski. He stares at his reflection in the glass, picturing himself as others see him — an average Pole, blond hair, green eyes, medium height — and not what he knows himself to be: the freshly minted creation of one David Gordon, a Jew. This Grabowski is just days old, his skin “thin and tender, but growing rapidly, from minute to minute, in thickness and toughness” when his creator reappears to besiege him with memories. Reluctantly, he agrees to “endure” the recollections of Gordon, the ghost who refuses to give him up.

The first half of “Transformations” recounts his metamorphosis from the sensitive luftmensch Gordon into the pragmatic realmensh Grabowski. It is a deadly yet methodical process. Everything that Gordon ever placed value in — books, art, beauty — has been reduced to pulp overnight. In the ghetto, knowledge and brains are worthless, and in their place, brute strength and cunning are all that remain. It is a time of utter despair: the loudspeakers that spit propaganda and hammer into every ear that Germany is victorious on every front; the encounter with an aged professor, who, unhinged, finally understands why Jews are so hated (the very sound of the word “Jew” drives people to hatred, so that “even Jews hate Jews”); and finally, the indifference Gordon comes to feel toward suffering, his own as well as others’. Particularly in the sections set in the ghetto, Auerbach’s prose is so fine and sharp that you could almost cut your throat on its edge.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this story line might have been reduced to a series of episodes in a masquerade. But Auerbach is not interested in the melodramatic/heroic aspect

of his tale, concerning himself instead with the overwhelming pressure that builds along the fault line between Grabowski and Gordon. As a consequence, the reader experiences each tremor and aftershock running along that seam.

If “Tales of Grabowski” can be said to draw on Auerbach’s experiences in the Holocaust, “The Owl & Other Stories” draws on the wanderings of an unnamed Marlowe-like figure. In the title story, an owl lands one night on an Israeli vessel sailing along the volcanic island of Stromboli. The following morning, the crew discovers and captures the owl. But having caught her, they’re at a loss for what to do with her. The chief engineer, a taciturn old man, tells the “hooligans” to let her go. But the crewmen react with scorn and lock up the owl below deck. Under the cover of night, the old man goes down and gets the owl and brings her up to the deck. Significantly, “The Owl” begins and ends at night, a place symbolizing something very different for Auerbach than, say, Elie Wiesel. With Wiesel, night represents horror and nameless terror; for Auerbach, it is a source of refuge, a respite from the dive-bombing Stukas and Nazis and Poles always on the hunt — or as in “The Owl,” from the hooligans onboard.

Given what we know about his life, what we have in these two books is the story of how Auerbach survived (and the life that he subsequently led), a narrative that feels authentic, down to its pared-down, essential details.

Yet “Tales of Grabowski” is more than simply a retelling of that life. Instead, it is a work of the imagination in a way that the stories of Tadeusz Borowski in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” are not. And despite the authenticity of its spare details, Auerbach’s work shares little with the memoirs of Primo Levi. The simple explanation for this is that Auerbach’s survival was predicated on maintaining a fiction, thus only a fictional approach could capture his experiences. Yet that answer is much too shallow.

Instead, the fact that Auerbach produced his works in English seems to me to be central in understanding how he was able to succeed in these works. In thinking of his life, Auerbach must have been faced with a great void: Who was that self? Who had he been, who was he now, and what was he becoming? Polish, the language of his childhood, could not begin to frame, much less answer, those questions, while Hebrew, the language of his new home, was too landlocked to encompass his odyssey. By choosing to write in English, Auerbach underwent his final transformation and closed the circle. And as he surveyed the wreckage of his life, I would like to imagine that uppermost in his mind was Conrad’s statement that “every novel contains an element of autobiography… since the creator can only express himself in his creation.”

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