Henryk Grynberg has given us a surprise – after several books devoted to the relentless fight against anti-Semitism he has written an anecdotal account that is light and full of charm. In his previous collection of essays he fulminated in a patriarchal manner, blaming Christian Europe first for the murder of the Jews, then of bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In today’s Poland he has revealed the old anti-Semitic words and gestures he had to escape from in 1967. It was not pleasant reading for us, alas. He contrasted rotten Europe with America as a place where Jews no longer had to hide. And now he has written a book about those who took refuge there, about fugitives from Gomułka’s Poland including the writer Marek Hłasko, the film director Roman Polański, the jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda, and above all about himself. This book has many flavours: it is full of youth, energy and sex. And it is not in any way impaired by the fact that some of its heroes were also fugitives from life – people who committed suicide. It also seems highly personal, because although most of Grynberg’s books relate to his own life story and his family’s fortunes, he has always insisted that the reader should not identify him as the hero. Here too he allows himself a little safety precaution. “These masculine adventures were just the follies of youth!”, he declares in the introduction. But for the first time nonetheless he writes about his marriages and close friends. Exiles is somewhat reminiscent of his superb novels about the 1950s in Poland, Ideological Life and Personal Life. The hero of these books is a young Jew who has had to learn how to pretend and dissemble. In Exiles we see the same hero, but finally he is not having to play a game. This breath of fresh air, this sense of relief can be felt throughout the narrative. Grynberg clearly enjoys playing around with the usual conventions, and the reader shares his pleasure in it.
- Justyna Sobolewska
After investing everything they came with in those one-and-a-half tiny rooms in Cafon, Mama and Usher had to go to work, he at a cheese-making plant and she at a tailor’s shop, which was beyond their ageing strengths, especially during the hamsin winds, and there was no air conditioning at either the cheese plant or the tailor’s, or even in their flat in elegant Cafon, nor did they have enough money for it, not even for blood. So they decided to flee further and were waiting for their papers from America, where Mama had two female cousins, and Usher had a brother and a sister. That was why Mama did not insist on my staying.
I wanted to go back via Paris. A close friend of Mama’s sent me an invitation, pretending to be a relative. I filled in a long questionnaire – eight times, because you weren’t allowed to make carbon copies – stapled on eight photographs, paid forty dollars which came from Mama’s pocket and after four weeks, which I spent in a kibbutz, I got my visa. I had a return ticket for the ship from Haifa to Naples and a train ticket from Naples to Warsaw, so I paid thirty more dollars from Mama’s purse for the diversion from Milan via Paris to Vienna, and set off for the Adriatica shipping line office. There were ships leaving on the ninth and the twenty-third of February. Next to the timetable there was a notice saying that Adriatica could arrange visas for its passengers in forty-eight hours. I asked for a reservation for the ninth, because my train ticket was valid until the twentieth.
“Do you have an Italian visa?”
“Then you’ll have to go to the Embassy first.”
“But you can make the visa arrangements.”
“Not with your passport. Only the Embassy can do it.”
Tel Aviv is not a large city, so I was at the Embassy in fifteen minutes, where I filled in the necessary forms on the spot.
“When should I come to collect my visa?”
“In two weeks.”
“Why is that? Doesn’t Adriatica arrange visas here in two days?”
“For Polish passports we have to go through Rome.”
I hurried off to the Orbis office.
“Can I please extend my train ticket?”
“Not here, you can only do that in Warsaw.”
I ran back to the Embassy.
“Please have my visa ready in two weeks, by the twenty-third at the latest.”
The Italian looked at my passport.
“Ee, signore, we can’t, your Austrian visa runs out on the sixteenth.”
I took a careful look at my Orbis ticket. It was dated 20 November in indelible pencil and was valid for three months. So in ordinary pencil I added a tail onto the nought and it became valid for three months from 29 November. On this basis Austria extended my transit visa to 28 February, and I went back to the Italian Embassy.
“Ee, signore, if your Austrian visa runs out on 28 February you can only get an Italian one up to the twenty-seventh, but your ship only reaches Naples that day and you won’t have time to travel right across Italy.”
I ran back to Orbis.
“What am I to do?”
“If there’s an Israeli ship on the eighteenth and Adriatica cooperates with them, so they’ll issue you with a transfer.”
I ran back to Adriatica. The Italian looked at my boat ticket.
“Ee, signore, it was issued in Warsaw, and they stipulate that their clients can only travel with Adriatica.”
I ran back to Orbis.
“Doesn’t Warsaw make an exception if a person has no other way of getting back?”
“No. But why not send them the ticket by express with a request saying it’s very urgent?”
I ran back to the Italian Embassy.
“Please issue me with a visa until 27 February, I’m getting a new train ticket.”
“Bene, but senza siesta, you won’t be allowed to stop.”
I rubbed the tail off the nought on the ticket date and sent the ticket by express to Warsaw, to a girl who might be keen for me to come back. Ten days later I received my new ticket, valid for two months longer. On this basis Czechoslovakia extended my transit pass to the end of March, and Austria made a face but did the same, leaving me enough time not only for Paris, but for the whole of Italy, which, travelling in this direction with the five dollars I’d been allowed to take out of Poland, I had only seen from the window of the express train. Senza siesta? What could they do to me if I did stop there?
Mietek Całka, a friend from journalism school who dropped out of college in mid-course to come here and become a Hebrew writer, but was serving in a tank corps for now, wrote down for me the name of a café on the Boulevard Saint Germain where Sartre used to sit every day, and even advised me what to say to him. Hłasko gave me a piece of paper folded in four for Agnieszka Osiecka, his friend from journalism school.
The battle-scarred old ship was permeated with the sour stink of olives. The majority of the passengers were middle-aged men, mainly Jews from Marseilleswho were mostly card-playing gamblers. Once they found out I going back to Poland they crowded round me. “Why?” they asked. “What for?” “A young man like you?” They started collecting money. “Here,” they said, “get off at Famagusta and go back to Haifa.” They calmed down a bit when I told them I was going via Paris. “Ah, Paris…”
They knew no one ever went back from Paris, and not just the writers, filmmakers and artists. They told me a story about a girl from a communist family who also only went there for a visit, but as soon as she saw Paris said: “I’m never going to leave this place!” She left a fiancé behind her in Warsaw who was about to begin a university career and married a chef from northern Italy. Not even the communists returned from Paris, because it was much better to be a communist in Paris than in Warsaw.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones