In Family History of Fear (recently published in English translation), the Polish poet and writer Agata Tuszyńska recounts her search for her family’s recent past. The prompting came in the early 1970s when the nineteen-year-old Agata was informed by her mother that she had been born a Jew and had survived World War II in hiding. A similar search was also undertaken by the historian Ivan Jablonka, whose Polish-Jewish grandparents emigrated to France in 1937 but were nonetheless swept up by the Holocaust. While they both died at Auschwitz, their son, Ivan’s father, survived by hiding first with a Polish Catholic neighbor and then with a French family in the countryside. Reviewing both books, Adam Kirsch writes of the former:
[O]ne of the themes of Family History of Fear is that fear of anti-Semitism is a rational emotion in Poland even today. In one of the book’s most staggering moments, Tuszyńska tracks down the Polish family that sheltered her mother as a young girl during the Holocaust. The son of that family, now an old man, remembers the little Jewish girl who came to live with them: “She used to take the cows to pasture, and she slept there in the next room.” Then he bursts out: “What was the use of doing all that? Why did my mother put her whole family at risk? Why all that? What are they doing to us now? It’s a shame and a disgrace how the Jews have dominated the whole world. I don’t know why we had to save them.”
To be a “righteous gentile,” Jews today might naively assume, must be a badge of honor, a cause for pride. For this Pole, however, it was a stupid mistake, a case of being duped by Jewish guile. And he’s not the only person we meet in Family History of Fear who feels that way. . . .
But, of course, this is far from the whole story. For it is a Pole, a history teacher named Mirek, who guards the records of the Jews of [of the town of] Łęczyca and who helped Tuszyńska find traces of her ancestors there. “Freeing himself from this widespread prejudice that had gone on for years required the courage of an independent thinker,” she observes. And during the war, it was a Pole who rescued many of Tuszyńska’s relatives, including her mother, from the Warsaw Ghetto. . . .
Another kind of ambiguity haunts the marriage of Tuszyńska’s parents. Her mother, Halina, met her father, Bogdan, when the two were journalism students at the University of Warsaw in the early 1950s. . . . Clearly, Bogdan was no Jew-hater. Yet Tuszyńska recalls that, throughout her childhood, her father was given to making anti-Semitic remarks: “To him, Jews were the reason, vague but ubiquitous, for everything that didn’t go as it was supposed to. . . . He held them responsible for every unpopular law, for whatever problems he currently had at work, for the scarcity of new tires for his automobile.”
“I did not understand what any of that meant,” Tuszyńska writes. “I had never met a Jew.”