Roman Szydłowski grew up in an affluent assimilated Jewish family in prewar Tarnów, a medium-sized city southeast of Krakow. His “Recollections,” published under the name The War Began in Tarnów, breezily describe the many relatives and acquaintances who populated his youth, though it is jarring how many of their lives were cut short by wartime assaults against Jews.
Szydłowski’s book reminds me that Poland is a small country, in the sense that citizens who travel in elite circles know each other, or know of each other. A person raised in a family like Szydłowski’s rubbed shoulders with famous actors, writers, and politicians. Simultaneously, World War II lurks on the edges, and at times overtakes Szydłowski’s narrative, as for example when he describes the explosions at the Tarnów train station, an act of German sabotage that happened on August 23, 1939, a week before the official invasion of Poland began.
The book is interesting for its intimate portrait of everyday life before, during, and immediately after World War II, but it does so from the particular lens of the moment in which it was written: 1982, when Poland was under martial law following the suppression of the Solidarity Movement that had sought to reform the state socialist system. Szydłowski was 63 years old and looking back on his life as he approached retirement. That time and place might explain the glaring absences in his otherwise vivid, detailed, and immediate recollections.
Born Roman Szancer in 1918, the author grew up in comfort in a large apartment at the center of Tarnów. His family owned an enormous mill which his great grandfather established in the early 1800s. It is notable how little Judaism figured in his early life story—it was a factor but hardly a defining one. His first recollection of anti-Jewish sentiment involved one of his classmates who called him “you Jew” in a way that sounded like a slur. Roman couldn’t understanding why being Jewish would be an insult, but he replied in kind, “you Catholic.” When their teacher found out, he made them stop, threatening them with corporal punishment. Later, Roman and the other boy became good friends.
The Szancer family took pride in their unaccented Polish and their assimilation, not only into Polish culture, but also into elite European culture more broadly. As a child, Roman visited relatives in Germany and Austria. His grandmother, a cousin of Austrian philosopher Martin Buber, was the only one in the family who spoke Polish with a strong accent; they had to talk to her in German.
Roman portrays himself as a proud defender of Poland. About the rise of Hitler in Germany, he writes “We feared for the future of Poland, though none of us anticipated that our country, which we considered stable, would soon be pillaged by the Third Reich” (p. 60-1). Szydłowski mentions just a few instances when his early life was touched by prejudice. The first girl he fell in love with was Catholic, and “there were those who couldn’t reconcile with the fact that ‘that Jew goes out with such a pretty Polish girl’,” so they spread rumors that broke them up (p. 74). A few years later at the Jagiellonian University, Jews were separated from the Catholic students and confined to the so-called “ghetto benches.” This didn’t affect Roman directly because he had what people called “a good look.” In other words, he didn’t have the stereotypical features or mannerisms associated with Jews and so could sit wherever he wanted. He makes a point of saying that only the leftist students objected to the “Aryan paragraph” restricting Jews from student organizations; the majority of the student body voted in favor of the restrictions.
Another incident illustrates how distant Roman felt from traditional Jewish life. He describes a Hassidic wedding he attended in the summer of 1939 in a mostly Jewish town. The residents dressed differently than he was used to seeing in the towns around Tarnów, in round hats with small rims, shorter jackets and their pants tucked into manure-covered shoes. About the wedding he writes, “I’m left with an impression of something very colorful, but so far away and foreign as if I found myself suddenly on a distant continent” (p. 125).
Szydłowski’s wartime experiences read like an adventure story, making startling shifts from descriptions of carefree youthful high jinx to hair-raising brushes with death. Because he had connections, he was able to drive east ahead of the invading German army and find refuge with relatives near Lviv (part of Poland before the war, the Soviet Union after 1939, and Ukraine today). He describes his apprehension by Soviet authorities, deportation to the Far East, and eventful return to Lviv, one chance encounter leading to another that eventually got him back to relative safety.
After Hitler broke the German-Soviet nonaggression pact, he witnessed the most horrific events of his own wartime experiences. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered in Lviv, their blood running through the streets. He returned to Tarnów, where he moved freely, neither wearing the Star of David nor staying in the ghetto as dictated by the Nazi occupiers. By December 1941, he settled in Warsaw, where he changed his last name to Szydłowski, thus gaining the protection of a Polish surname. He writes breathlessly about the richness of the culture in the city, where he attended classical concerts, theatre productions, and university classes. All of these activities occurred “underground,” without the knowledge or sanction of the occupying forces.
He explains, “Warsaw during those years was a city impossible to describe. Terrifying contrasts collided at every corner. Luxury alongside poverty, tragedy next to debauchery, death and delight, everything compounded to the maximum. People lived as if in a trance, unsure of tomorrow. Everyone knew they could die soon, so they wanted to get the most out of life” (p. 155). After being arrested under suspicion of conspiracy, and imprisoned in Pawlak Prison, Szydłowski was mysteriously released. He made a quick retreat to the countryside near Krakow, where his “most carefree period of occupied life began” (p. 162). He spent the summer at the ancestral palace of a gentry family who treated him like an esteemed guest. The refuge was an illusion, he admits. A year later, months after he had moved on, German police came and shot the whole family.
What might explain the absences in Szyłowski’s narrative? Why doesn’t he mention the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, even though he was living in Warsaw at the time? He lived in the “Aryan” part of the city under his assumed name, but he must have witnessed the armed revolt mounted by the last remaining Jews in the ghetto. The fighting continued for 28 days until most of the partisans were either killed or took their own lives. Why doesn’t he discuss the massive scale of the Holocaust? He makes no mention of the millions who died, nor any details about the death camps. He does not address the nearly complete absence of a Jewish population in Poland after the war. The annihilation of Poland’s Jews only peaks out in the many biographies of family and acquaintances that ended with them murdered by military police or Germans.
Szydłowski’s recollections also elide any direct criticism of communism. He simply gives a matter-of-fact description of the arrival of Soviet troops after the Germans retreated , without addressing the heavy hand the Soviet Union played in shaping the postwar state-socialist republic. He writes directly about joining the Communist Party in 1946, but only indirectly about his disillusionment and retreat from the party just a few years later. Throughout his narrative, he acknowledges his socialist leanings, as well as the socialist and communist affiliations of his friends, but he also makes a point of emphasizing his disinterest in politics.
Szydłowski ran out of time to finish writing about his 35-year career as a theatre critic and journalist. He died in 1983.
What a difficult way to walk through life, carrying so many ghosts in your memories. And yet, Szydłowski speaks with the voice of an optimist.