This month, Paper Brigade’s Short Story Club had the pleasure of hosting Basia Winograd for a discussion of “The Realist” – a story that follows a young Polish Jewish soldier as he struggles to reconcile his patriotism with memories of his lost family after World War II.
Basia generously answered the attendee questions we didn’t have time to address during the meeting itself. Check them out – and watch a clip from the event – below!
Register for the last meeting of Paper Brigade’s Short Story Club of 2022, featuring Abigail Weaver, here.
I’m interested in how Felix’s experience of post-traumatic growth figures into the story. Given your practice of interviewing family members about your family’s collective story, I’m wondering about the role of memory in shaping Felix’s growth.
Much of my interviewing has been about the events of the 1960s that led to my family’s emigration. The emigration is mostly spoken of as a fortunate event. Life in communist Poland was grim compared to life in Queens, New York in the 1970s. For immigrants from Eastern Europe like my family — highly educated, hardworking, and white — America really was a land of opportunity. My grandfather — Henryk Winograd, on whom Feliks is loosely based — became a silversmith and worked largely in Judaica. His work is still for sale in Judaica shops! (I’ve considered using a story I’ve written about his life in 2010 as an epilogue to the novel.) My father was a mathematician in Poland and he became a taxi driver here, but he will tell you he is very pleased with his life’s trajectory. He has moved back to Poland in recent years, and he’s seen as “the American” by his friends there. Personally, I do think the emigration had to have been a trauma of sorts, but it’s not spoken of in that way in my family. The Polish community in New York was incredibly tight-knit when I was growing up, and we lived our lives mostly in Polish. My own memories of it are very happy. Sometimes I think I write about those times out of nostalgia.
As for the previous generation, Feliks’s generation: I was always told that my grandfather’s mother and siblings died in the Holocaust. I was also named after my grandfather’s mother. So there was an awareness that we had a tragic past, but it was never dwelt on. We didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays, though matzah always appeared in the house around Passover (my grandfather’s brother did remain religious and I think it was his family that sent the matzah). My grandfather was a very hardworking man. He did his silversmithing in the basement of his house in Queens. Other than that, he watched a lot of news in his recliner in the living room. And he told stories of the war, but not of life before the war. It was his wife, my grandmother, whom I recorded and still listen to today. My father is also a storyteller and I grew up hearing his stories about life in Poland, and his early years in America. Both of his brothers, my uncles, have also told me their versions in recent years.
I would love to hear about developments in your writing since this story was published in last year’s issue of Paper Brigade.
In 2021, I got the great news that the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture would support the completion of the novel. This gave me a lot of confidence, and funds to travel to Poland to do some final research. Since then, I’ve completed a first draft of the novel, made up of six chapters. Chronologically, it starts with “The Realist,” and ends in 1968, during that year’s antisemitic purges in Poland.
I plan to have the next, and hopefully final, draft ready in October 2022.
When will the novel be published?
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be soon!
What is the name of the novel?
The working title of the novel is Noble Delusionists; the noble delusion being referred to is Feliks’s certainty that his loyalty to Poland will help bring about a better, stronger Poland in which he will be seen as fully Polish.
Please discuss your short story writing process. How many drafts did you go through to get to the final version?
I would have to guess at this, but I would say there were at least four full rewrites, where the story was restructured completely, and then literally hundreds of hours of smaller line-level rewrites. After the publication in Paper Brigade, I decided to braid Feliks’s story with that of his future wife, Lilka, who also arrives in Warsaw in 1945. This took weeks.
“The Realist,” for me, poignantly and with appropriate complexity, portrays survival. It is success, on one level, but also uncovers the ongoing challenges of survival; a realist view of survival. Was this your vision of the story as you wrote it?
Feliks tries so hard to rationalize everything that has happened in the previous five years. I imagine this is what any Jew in Poland (or anyone in Poland, for that matter) had to do in 1945. There is a bit of irony in the title of the story, because Feliks’s “realism” slips despite his best intentions.
As for whether Feliks’s survival was a success: When I started writing Feliks, he was a secondary character in the story of his son, Tomasz, and there he is not the most likable character. He’s not a bad person, but he’s very compromised. He’s had to make peace with the authoritarian regime that he serves as an officer of the army, for example. He’s depicted as a sort of goofy, joke-cracking middle-aged man who deflects serious conversation.
So, life in Poland does compromise him. (He might tell you life anywhere would have compromised him, though.)
I feel that Feliks feels like he’s a Pole as much as he’s a Jew. I feel like most of the European Jews who I’ve known identify themselves as Jewish, not Polish or Lithuanian or German or Dutch, etc. Of course, my entire Jewish community has been the children of American Jewish immigrants. So, they are unlike Feliks?
Absolutely: the small minority of Jews who remained in Eastern Europe after the war were a self-selected bunch who identified primarily with their countries. They were patriots. Many of them were very idealistic, or even communists. Some were artists of the avant-garde, who thought religion was outmoded. They were looking forward to a bright new reality free of superstition and ethnic prejudice. Marci Shore wrote a fascinating history called Caviar and Ashes about these Jews. To me, it’s heartbreaking that all their ideals went up in smoke when it became increasingly clear between the 1950s and the 1980s that Communism was not going to work, at least in the Eastern European context. Noble Delusionists, in its later chapters, touches on this.
The Jews we know here in the US tended to be those who identified primarily as Jews, and therefore had no desire to stay in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust.
In this story, how far from Łódź does Feliks live?
Feliks lives in Warsaw, which is about eighty-five miles from Łódź.
You note that Felix had not heard Yiddish since Palestine. I assume he left to fight in Europe. Can you comment on this part of his life?
Before 1939, Feliks would have spoken Yiddish and Polish in Łódź. As a soldier of the Polish Army, he’d have spoken only Polish with his fellow soldiers between 1939 and 1945. However, Anders’ Army stopped in Palestine for a spell before continuing on to Italy, so he would have heard some Yiddish there.
For how long did Feliks live in Palestine? In what year does “The Realist” take place?
I read about Anders’ Army in Norman Davies’ book Trail of Hope, which is associated with this website: http://andersarmy.com. Anders’ Army was in Palestine in 1943. Feliks would have been there a few months before being sent to the front in Italy.
Feliks comes back to Poland in 1945, a few months after the Germans retreated from Warsaw. This story takes place in the fall of 1945.
What is the significance of the voice that Feliks hears throughout the story?
I studied film directing at the Polish National Film School in Łódź. Part of my coursework there involved watching hundreds of Polish films. I noticed a pattern in the credits: in films made before 1968, a significant percentage of the cast and crew had Jewish surnames. After 1968, those names completely disappeared. They disappeared for the same reason my family disappeared from Warsaw’s phone book: in 1968, there was a government-sponsored antisemitic campaign that purged Jews from workplaces and universities.
I came to realize that much of Polish film, music, academic writing, and other forms of culture from the interwar period through the 1960s was created by Jewish Poles. In “The Realist,” Feliks’s hallucination begins with his mother’s voice singing a song by Julian Tuwim, a Jewish poet whose poems are still memorized today by schoolchildren in Poland. (I recently came across an English translation of one of his children’s poems in a Manhattan bookshop.) The fact that Tuwim was Jewish is either not widely recognized or not widely acknowledged in Poland. It’s hard to say if people don’t know about his ethnic roots, or if mentioning them is just sort of frowned upon. In any case, what this discomfort with reality results in is a forgetting of how Jewish Poland really is. Recently I began to think of all the existing films and music and art by Jews as a sort of “whisper” that still sounds in the heads of all Poles today. Of course, as time passes, those whispers grow fainter.
The hum that Feliks hears throughout the story is a variation on this “whisper.” It’s his mother’s voice, but it’s also his conscience. It’s saying “remember me.”