From UMASS Amherst: Polish biographer Agata Tuszyńska to read from new book
Polish biographer Agata Tuszyńska will read from her new book, “Vera Gran – The Accused,” on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in 601 Herter Hall.
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”—TheTimes 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.
Vera Gran was a sultry contralto headlining at the Café Sztuka in the Warsaw Ghetto. The café and her accompanist are remembered in Roman Polański’s film The Pianist, but she is not. Accused after the war of collaboration with the Germans, despite being acquitted of all charges, she was never able to get her career back into full swing, though she did make some recordings in Paris, had a Carnegie Hall recital, and sang with the likes of Charles Aznavour. Tuszyńska’s book, newly translated into English by Charles Ruas, tells her story.
Tuszyńska, one of Poland’s leading biographers and writers, sought out Gran in Paris and interviewed her over a period of three years, researching Gran’s claims and allegations in an attempt to render an account of her life from scraps of memory, refracted through amnesia, paranoia and delusion. Her controversial book, quickly translated into several languages, is also a subjective account of the author’s struggle to work through her own personal relationship to the Warsaw Ghetto. Tuszyńska, the daughter of Ghetto survivors, only learned of her Jewish heritage in her late teens. In her book she attempts to get inside the minds of Gran and of her accusers, raising more questions than she answers.
Tuszyńska’s visit is sponsored by the Amesbury Professorship in Polish Language, Literature and Culture in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute New York and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw. Copies of her book will be available for sale after her talk.