In a crisis people show their true faces, even more so in times of war and persecution. Hadn’t it been a period of most disgusting crimes against humanity, World War II would have been the perfect scenario for sociologists to study human behaviour in all kinds of dangerous situations. The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski shows how the much tried Polish people reacted to Nazi occupation after centuries of foreign rule (be it Russian, Prussian or Austrian) and underground resistance. The novel talks of secret heroes, of the mercilessly persecuted and of accidental victims just as well as of collaborators out of conviction or out of need. But for many of the survivors World War II was just the beginning of their fight for survival in an oppressive regime.
Andrzej Szczypiorski was born in Warsaw, Poland, in February 1928. During the war he attended the so-called “Flying University” and fought against Nazi occupation as a partisan until he was caught and sent to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. After the war he studied Political Science and began to work as a journalist although for short periods of time he also served his country as an ambassador and much later, after the fall of communism, as a Senator in the Polish Parliament. Early on in his career he collaborated with the Polish Secret Police, but in the 1970s he took the side of the democratic opposition and was in prison in the early 1980s. In 1952 Andrzej Szczypiorski made his literary debut and produced about twenty novels over the following decades. Among his most notable works are Za murami Sodomy (1963; Behind the Walls of Sodom), A Mass for Arras (Msza za miasto Arras: 1971), The Shadow Catcher (Złowić cień: 1976), The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (Początek: 1986), Noc, dzień i noc (1991; Night, Day and Night), and Self-Portrait with Woman (Autoportret z kobietą: 1994). Andrzej Szczypiorski died in Warsaw, Poland, in May 2000.
The title figure of The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman lives in Warsaw, when German troupes invade Poland in September 1939. At first sight the woman in her thirties is the model Aryan from Adolf Hitler’s dreams – fair hair, blue eyes and regular features –, but to her misfortune she’s the Jewish widow of the radiologist Ignacy Seidenman and thus in constant danger. Instead of her tell-tale name Irma Seidenman she uses the Polish alias Maria Magdalena Gostomska to escape Nazi persecution. Since she has excellent false papers and moves houses every so often as a precaution, everything goes well until 1943, when she has the bad luck to run into a former acquaintance, Bronek Blutman, on the street. He recognises her at once and, being a Jewish informer who denounces other Jews to save his own skin, he forces her to accompany him to the Gestapo Headquarters. At this point her rather unworldly neighbour and classical scholar Adam Korda, who is told that she is alleged to be Jewish and in the hands of the Gestapo, sets in motion her rescue getting in touch with nineteen-year-old Pawełek Kryński, the only person from her past whom he knows. Pawełek is Mrs. Seidenman’s neighbour from the times when her husband was still alive and he had a crush on her ever since he was thirteen years old. As soon as he hears that Mrs. Seidenman was exposed, he calls the railway-man Filipek and asks him to help. But not only Irma Seidenman is rescued by the people of Warsaw. With the help of the tailor Apolinary Kujawski, who became rich after his Jewish principal died in the Ghetto of Warsaw and his only son was shot in the streets, judge Romnicki manages to save little Joasia Fichtelbaum, the daughter of a Jewish lawyer he knows. Smuggled from the Ghetto by the petty criminal Wiktor Suchowiak, the girl is given into the care of Sister Weronika who passes her off for a Catholic orphan named Marysia Wiewiora. The girl’s older brother, Henryczek “Henio” Fichtelbaum, is less lucky although his classmate and best friend Pawełek does everything in his power to hide him after he escaped from the Ghetto. Tired of hiding, Henio returns to the Ghetto to join the resistance there and is killed in the 1943 Uprising. Everywhere in Warsaw people die violent and senseless deaths, while others survive and have to come to terms with the Communist regime.
The novel’s English title suggests that it’s just the story of The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman although in reality the author portrays a whole bunch of people from Warsaw who fight for survival under the terror regime of the Nazis during World War II. The different plotlines, namely the fates of the depicted characters, are loosely connected by the key figures – most importantly Mrs. Seidenman, but also Pawełek Kryński and the tailor Apolinary Kujawski – and show the variety of Polish society in the 1940s. The original title of the novel is Początek which means Beginning in English and may refer to the fact that for Poland the years of German occupation were just the life-threatening prelude to a much longer ordeal under Communist rule. In fact, Andrzej Szczypiorski doesn’t limit his masterpiece to the war years. On many occasions he makes references to important events of Polish history and in his role as omniscient third-person narrator he also outlines the lives of his protagonists after the war, thus linking past, present and future to show how experiences we make as individuals or as a people necessarily influence our thoughts and actions for generations. Also in a different sense the war is a beginning. Young people like nineteen-year-old Pawełek are pushed into adulthood virtually over night and discover love at the same time as death. The novel is written in a precise as well as a lyrical language which is salted with wit, even irony, and makes it a pleasure to read although the contents are rather heavy. At first the read can be a bit confusing because the opening chapters seem quite unrelated to each other, but this soon changes revealing a view on a colourful kaleidoscope of human types.
For me reading The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski has been a very interesting experience which gave me a better idea of the years under Nazi occupation in Warsaw (like The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman several years ago) and taught me a few things about post-war life under Communism in Poland. For keeping alive collective memory, I appreciate such novels very much and even enjoy them as far as the subject allows. In this case it was really a pleasure since the focus is less on the shocking crimes of the Nazis than on the character of people facing them. In any case I recommend the book without reserve.