Andrzej Szczypiorski’s Początek: Reconstructing Warsaw and the Aesthetics of Reckoning

Todd Patrick Armstrong, Grinnell College

The post-1989 era in Central Europe has ushered in a reexamination of the Holocaust, particularly in Poland. Constituting as it does part of an emerging tradition in Polish literature that seeks both to interrogate the nature of Polish-Jewish relations and to respond to the Holocaust, Andrzej Szczypiorski’s 1986 novel Początek (The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman) warrants critical scrutiny. This paper analyzes two central and interrelated themes in his text: the author’s reckoning with the Polish role in the unfolding genocide of Poland’s Jews; and his conception of a lost, pre-war national identity.

Through his narrative reconstruction of 1943 Warsaw, Szczypiorski focuses not only on those who perished, but also on the few who survived the Holocaust, especially those saved through the efforts of individuals or groups of Polish citizens of varying ethnic and social backgrounds. Similarly, some who perish in the novel do so at the hands of all types of people – including Jews. In this sense, Szczypiorski seeks to universalize both the inclination towards decency, as well as towards complicity and collaboration. Given the context and the final results of the war, this stance is clearly problematic, as Zaworska and Levine have argued. At the same time, Szczypiorski’s novel attempts at a reckoning through his struggle with a primary feature of Polish complicity: indifference. His reckoning with the past is also closely related to his approach to a Polish – in the sense of national – identity.

Szczypiorski questions the myth of national identity formed in the post-war years, mourning the loss of a perceived multiethnic, even inclusive Poland. He strives to recreate an assimilationist model, one that perished under the crushing rule of the two great totalitarianisms of the twentieth century – fascism and communism. By assimilationist I have in mind the way in which exemplary characters in his novel seem to retain their individuality, yet aspire to an identity unified under the banner not of ethnicity or race, but of a shared language and common heritage of suffering. The author seeks to establish the existence of tolerance, of the recognition on the part of good Poles (in the national sense, i.e., including Poles, Jews and Germans) that the particularity of difference is overcome by the universality of a common humanity. This same tolerance perishes as much in the communist context as it does during the war, as we learn through Szczypiorski’s omniscient narrator’s description and in-depth commentary of the varying fates of each of his characters.

The novel’s appraisals in the Polish press figure in my reading, as do recent critical responses, Polish historiography, and Holocaust studies. I also rely on memoirs and other non-fictional texts by Szczypiorski and other writers. Critical studies of the “other” and alterity, especially in the context of the Jews of Poland, inform my study as well. Finally, I am concerned with situating Szczypiorski’s novel in the context of contemporary Polish literary responses to the Holocaust.