The extraordinary, controversial story of Vera Gran, beautiful, exotic prewar Polish singing star; legendary, sensual contralto, Dietrich-like in tone, favorite of the 1930s Warsaw nightclubs, celebrated before, and during, her year in the Warsaw Ghetto (spring 1941–summer 1942) . . . and her piano accompanist: W³adys³aw Szpilman, made famous by Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film The Pianist, based on Szpilman’s memoir.
Following the war, singer and accompanist, each of whom had lived the same harrowing story, were met with opposing fates: Szpilman was celebrated for his uncanny ability to survive against impossible odds, escaping from a Nazi transport loading site, smuggling in weapons to the Warsaw Ghetto for the Jewish resistance.
Gran was accused of collaborating with the Nazis; denounced as a traitor, a “Gestapo whore,” reviled, imprisoned, ultimately exonerated yet afterward still shunned as a performer . . . in effect, sentenced to death without dying . . . until she was found by Agata Tuszyñska, acclaimed poet and biographer of, among others, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel laureate (“Her book has few equals”—The Times Literary Supplement).
Tuszyñska, who won the trust of the once-glamorous former singer, then living in a basement in Paris—elderly, bitter, shut away from the world—encouraged Gran to tell her story, including her seemingly inexplicable decision to return to Warsaw to be reunited with her family after she had fled Hitler’s invading army, knowing she would have to live within the ghetto walls and, to survive, continue to perform at the popular Café Sztuka.
At the heart of the book, Gran’s complex, fraught relationship with her accompanist, performing together month after month, for the many who came from within the ghetto and outside its walls to hear her sing.
Using Vera Gran’s reflections and memories, as well as archives, letters, statements, and interviews with Warsaw Ghetto historians and survivors, Agata Tuszyñska has written an explosive, resonant portrait of lives lived inside a nightmare time, exploring the larger, more profound question of the nature of collaboration, of the price of survival, and of the long, treacherous shadow cast in its aftermath.
About the Author
Tuszynska is a historian.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher and widely recognised as one of the most original and influential thinkers of the 20th Century.
“Tuszynska’s poetic narrative with its tortured antiheroine grabbed me hard… deeply moving.”
—Louise Steinman, Los Angeles Review of Books
“A call for the idea that the last word, where clarity has never come, should linger as a question if it can’t be an answer… captivating.”
—Tracy McNicoll, Newsweek
“Vigorous and tender… A book of extraordinary depth and power that sets one tormented individual on a lifelong struggle across the moral cloudland.”
—Richard Eder, The Boston Globe
“A startling, searing portrait.”
“Agata Tuszyńska sheds light into the dark corners [Vera Gran] had kept hidden, even from herself… In the end, the reader is left to decipher the truths of what really happened, as everyone, especially Vera, seeks shelter from their own painful recollections. We can define, for ourselves, what is the meaning of ‘collaborator’ in a world gone so dreadfully awry that the line blurs between daily compromises and buying time… A book to read slowly and think about.”
—Anne Porter, The Globe and Mail
“Agata Tuszyńska has written a fiery portrayal of lives lived in horror as well as an exploration of the profound question of who really did collaborate with the Nazis… evocative and succinct… [Vera Gran] reflects upon every aspect of humanity, from apprehension, persecution and sadism to compassion, courage, and trust… an excellent interpretation of life as a talented Jewish vocalist in the Warsaw ghetto and the extent to which people will go to survive.”
—Charles Weinblatt, Examiner.com
“Darkly absorbing . . . shrewd . . . a probing, atmospheric study of the ghetto’s moral ambiguities . . . sharply etched . . . In Charles Ruas’s skillful translation, Tuszynska’s prose conveys Gran’s story in brisk, evocative montage while, appropriately, leaving open enigmatic gaps. She finds no bright line of truth—just subtle shades of gray that are revealing of a nightmarish time.”
“Renders the World War II years in great detail, but the meat of the book lies in the accusation that Gran collaborated with the occupied forces in Warsaw and her vigorous, lifelong self-defense. . . . A great choice for Gran devotees or World War II enthusiasts.”