How important is the story? The case of Wiera Gran, the survivor who just wanted to be left alone

By Gosia Głouszek

Agata Tuszyńska, author of Vera Gran: The Accused.  Photo from www.Polki.pl

Agata Tuszyńska, author of Vera Gran: The Accused.
(Photo from www.Polki.pl)

 

It’s the spring 2003. After weeks of phone calls, Agata Tuszyńska will finally have a chance to conduct an interview for a biography she is writing of Wiera Gran, a Polish-Jewish singer, who was very popular in Poland before and during World War II. Gran is now in her 90s, sick, paranoid, and lets it be known that she is not willing to talk to anyone – and certainly not to a journalist. Not discouraged, Tuszyńska arrives in a very elegant, 16th district in Paris, close to the Eiffel Tower.

Tuszyńska enters an old tenement house where Gran lives on the first floor. Above the front door is a sign, in French: “Frappe fort!” – “Knock loudly!” She knocks and very soon old, hunched lady with her hair in a grey bun pulls the door open. It is clear that Tuszyńska won’t be let inside, not yet. There is a chair prepared in the staircase, they will sit and talk there.

Gran is unfriendly, even rude, but agrees to talk simply to have some peace. “You want to enter to my soul through the rectum” – she tells Tuszyńska – “Just like this. And you think it’s normal and I should agree on this. Because you want. Because you plan to. You have no conscience, you, scribbler. No understanding… You just come and ask for an interview. I don’t invite. I don’t let it. You journalists have special professional deformation. Cruelty and no empathy.”

They’ll spend a week talking in the staircase until Gran surrenders and invites the journalist inside into the neglected, dark flat, which nobody was supposed to see. Now, everyone can – there are pictures of the flat in the book and in the documentary movie.

The overly persistent and aggressive behaviour of Tuszyńska raises several ethical questions about reporting. Tuszyńska, in the interview for the Polish daily newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza” said this about her work as a reporter: “Writing a biography demands the features like: patience, humility, luck, craziness. The key to my work is also an understanding.” I am not sure that all of those are good or even ethical qualities. Wiera Gran clearly didn’t want to talk to the reporter. She made a decision to avoid the outside world, didn’t go out, didn’t see or invite anyone to her apartment. She took care of herself, treating her home as a shelter. Even in good faith, does a reporter have a right to cross the doorstep and to enter, at any price? Is the story that Tuszyńska got worth the invasion of Gran’s life? If Tuszyńska indeed wanted to rehabilitate the singer and tell her story, why didn’t she respect the privacy and will of the old, ill lady?

Wiera Gran came from a poor, Polish-Jewish family, and was raised in a small town called Wołomin. She began her singing career as a teenager and quickly gained popularity. With her low-alto, deep voice, she enchanted audiences on Warsaw stages. When World War II began, Gran and her family, like other Jews, were forced to move into the Warsaw ghetto. In the spring of 1941, with the war still surging, she began singing in Polish and Yiddish at “Sztuka,” a café frequently visited by Jewish intellectuals in the ghetto. One of her accompanists was Władysław Szpilman, whose life would later be chronicled in Roman Polanski’s Oscar-awarded movie “The Pianist.” During the war, she dyed her hair blond and managed to escape to the other side of the ghetto wall. She survived the Holocaust by hiding in a small town near Warsaw and marrying a local doctor.

Holocaust survivors, specifically Jews, had to face many questions in post-war Poland: “You’re alive? How did you survive? Who helped you?” Gran faced many of these questions too. Some rumours spread around the city that she collaborated with the Gestapo. Szpilman, who worked for Polish Radio 1 immediately after the war, was suspicious of Gran. When she asked him for a job as a singer on the radio, Szpilman refused. Next accusations appeared one after another, from very respected and well-known survivors, including Marek Edelman (the commander of Jewish uprising) and Irena Sendler (head of children’s section of Żegota ). Most important, Jonas Turkow, who investigated cases of collaboration after the War, believed that Gran was a collaborator. Someone reported that they saw her in the cab with a Nazi; someone else heard her singing at a concert for the Gestapo. In 1947 Turkow brought an action against Gran before the Central Committee of Polish Jews. The process lasted two and a half years and included hundred witnesses. In the end nothing was proven and Gran was proclaimed innocent.

Nonetheless, her life and career in Poland were finished. Moreover, when she tried to organise a singing tour in Israel, she learned that that the audience would appear in striped clothes, like the ones worn by the prisoners in Auschwitz. In 1950 she emigrated to France and largely kept to herself until that day in 2003 when Tuszyńska came to visit.

From the very beginning Tuszyńska claimed that she wanted to defend Gran and rehabilitate her tarnished reputation. Tuszyńska, a journalist, is most famous for being a biographer. She published a book about Nobel Prize winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and another about Irena Krzywicka, a Polish-Jewish writer and feminist. In 2005 Tuszyńska released a sort of autobiography, called “Exercises in Loss.” It is a story about the illness and death of her husband, Henryk Dasko. The account is realistic, expressive, even brutal. She writes about his body failing, about his appearance deteriorating. Reading that book, raised an essential question for me that came up as well with the Gran book. Do we have a right to go into such intimate details about someone’s physiology? About changes in the appearance and behaviour, which a person cannot control? Does a biographer have the right to invade someone’s privacy in the name of journalism?

I found that I was not alone in my discomfort with Tuszyńska’s style. Hanna Samson, a Polish journalist, writer and feminist, claimed that Tuszyńska exploited Gran. She said: “Tuszyńska was let to the doorstep, later to the apartment, inaccessible for the others. It wasn’t easy. Wiera Gran was afraid that she would regret, but she agrees, surrenders. And all of her notes, even private ones, were revealed. Even the dust in her flat. Hair not washed for a long time. She handled also her aversion for pictures. She took pictures of an old lady with a finger in her mouth. But for what?”

But the biggest controversies of the book are of a different kind. Gran, who died in 2007, had an obsession about Szpilman and claimed, that it was him – and not her – who collaborated with Germans. She told Tuszyńska, that she saw him in the ghetto, with a police cap on his head, dragging some Jewish women by the hair. What did Tuszyńska do? Despite the fact that she couldn’t find proof from any other source, she decided not to censor her character and published Gran’s accusations. In her defence, Tuszyńska emphasizes, that she was not expressing her personal belief, but only quoting Gran. “My book presents a portrait of a singer,” Tuszyńska said in the interview for the Polish weekly magazine Przekrój. “The pianist was a part of her life, it wasn’t possible to erase him.” And then she added: “I decided not to censor her, erase it from her biography. I don’t share Gran’s opinion. I only gave her a voice, allowed her to speak. I am not responsible for the content.”

Is she really not? She decided to tell Gran’s story because there was Polanski before, who told Szpilman’s in 2002. But shouldn’t the journalist choose smaller harm? Her story places blame on a person, who can’t defend himself (Szpilman died in 2000), ruins a living monument, and hurts his relatives who are alive.

The ethical issues of forcing someone to grant an interview and then using what they say to harm another’s reputation raise yet another ethical issue: to what point can we trust the victims of the Holocaust, especially if they are mentally unstable? Time and trauma change their memory. Does the journalist have a responsibility to censor or comment? Agata Tuszyńska herself posed those questions to Władysław Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz prisoner and former soldier in the Armia Krajowa, who is now a Polish public figure and former minister of Foreign Affairs. He told her: “If you caught me in the mental hospital, ill and confused, asked me for an interview and published it after my death – I would be grateful for my son, to sue you.”

That, in fact, is what happened with Szpilman. His son, Andrzej Szpilman, charged Tuszyńska with dishonesty. Although Szpilman lost the case in the court in Poland, in Germany the higher court in Hamburg decided to cut the fragments that insult Szpilman from the book. The next process will take place in the U.S where the book was published in February.

A recent review of “Vera Gran – the accused” in the New York Times was critical, mainly from an ethical point of view. The reviewer, James Lasdun, wrote: “One would think Tuszyńska might therefore be careful to quarantine the allegation in thick disclaimers. But on the contrary, without quite endorsing it, she plays it up to the maximum, feverishly empathizing with her subject.”

Then he adds: “You can gauge the quality of Tuszyńska’s reasoning from this simultaneously muddled and devious conversion of uncertainty into fact.” His review revives many of the same ethical questions. To what degree should we rely on the testimonies of victims? How are we supposed to tell their stories? And what should we do, if we are not sure about the truthfulness of their stories?

There are no easy answers. I have serious doubts if Tuszyńska acted ethically and I feel uncomfortable about her journalistic methods. The German court thought she went too far and, even though the Polish court ruled in her favour, that doesn’t mean she acted ethically, only within the limits of the law. Tuszyńska did manage to tell the story of a forgotten Jewish diva, but, to my mind, the story came at too great a cost. An old and vulnerable person who wants to be left alone is not fair game for an inquiring journalist. In the end, Tuszyńska did not rehabilitate her. While claiming to be her defender, Tuszyńska only caused a scandal. All this may bring Tuszyńska fame and book royalties, but it will not make her an example for journalists to follow. Clearly, she crossed the line.

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