MEMORY AND IMAGINATION: TRUTH IN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

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1 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page 26 MEMORY AND IMAGINATION: TRUTH IN AUTOBIOGRAPHY Janina Bauman ABSTRACT What is the nature of the compulsion to life writing? How does the elongated project of writing a life change as it shifts moments and locales, and why do others respond so directly as readers of stories that are so specific and particular? Janina Bauman is known in English-speaking cultures for two books, Winter in the Morning (1986) and A Dream of Belonging (1988). The first covers her girlhood in the Warsaw ghetto, and escape; the second, more fictionalized, deals with the period leading up to exile from Poland after Janina Bauman spent 20 years of her life working in Polish film. This article reflects on the process of coming to autobiography, and making sense of the writing process and the reception process. KEYWORDS writing autobiography Holocaust memory Warsaw ghetto Only after I had published my books in Britain did I develop a keen interest in autobiography as a literary genre and realize how popular autobiography is with all kinds of readers. Many people told me they would choose to read a true life-story rather than a work of fiction. I noticed this too, while working as a librarian and while selling second-hand books in a charity shop. On the other hand, as an author of two autobiographical books, I ve had a chance to discover that lots of people from all walks of life intend or try to write their life-stories. These observations gave me the idea to carry out research into the subject of autobiography. WHAT IS AUTOBIOGRAPHY? Autobiography is a form of literary expression in which the author tries to recreate his or her life using all the available resources of memory and Thesis Eleven, Number 70, August 2002: SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Copyright 2002 SAGE Publications and Thesis Eleven Pty Ltd [ (200208)70;26 35;025314]

2 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page 27 Bauman: Memory and Imagination 27 research. Unlike diaries and journals written spontaneously day after day, autobiographies look back at the author s life from a long distance of time, and are usually written late in life. Apart from St Augustine s work written in the 5th century, autobiography as a literary form begins 10 centuries later, with the Renaissance. At this stage it mainly deals with the subject of religious faith. Strangely enough, the first work of the kind was written not in Italy but in England. A certain Margery Kempe from Norfolk, a woman of rich religious experience, on her deathbed dictated a candid account of her life and faith. She did this in a series of scenes developed by dialogue and showed an abject humility, calling herself a creature. The Age of Enlightenment brings a few autobiographies of greater significance and wider outlook, written by more prominent authors, such as the great English historian of the 18th century Edward Gibbon, better known for his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, famous for his Confessions, and Benjamin Franklin in America. Their works reflect not only the strong personalities of the authors but also the spirit of their times. The first poetical autobiographies come with the Romantic movement in England Wordsworth s Prelude and, to some extent, Byron s Childe Harold. The 19th century sees an outburst of keen interest in the self, in the development of personality. With Goethe s Aus meinem Leben a self-searching kind of writing begins to flourish everywhere in Europe and in America. Throughout the 19th century and up to the present time people of greater and lesser merits, of various backgrounds and for all kinds of reasons write down their life-stories. To remind you of only few, I mention at random Charles Darwin s Autobiography, Rudyard Kipling s Something of My Life, Winston Churchill s My Early Life, H. G. Wells and W. B. Yeats autobiographies these in Britain only. As modern works of particular weight I would mention Marcel Proust s A la recherche du temps perdu, which in the guise of a novel explores his own life, and Jean Paul Sartre s Les Mots The Words, which tells about his childhood as the formative years of the future thinker and writer. These days see an avalanche of autobiographical books by pop stars, sport champions, victims of kidnapping, accidents and natural disasters, disabled people and those dying from terrible diseases, disappointed wives and lovers wreaking vengeance on their unfaithful partners and many others. Many of these books are written with help of ghost-writers. WHY DO PEOPLE WRITE ABOUT THEMSELVES? There are very many kinds of autobiographies and very many different reasons for which they are written. Each autobiographer writes because she or he has a story to tell. Like a novelist, an autobiographer is first of all a storyteller. According to Walter Benjamin, storytelling basically falls into two categories, which he dubbed sailor s tales and farmer s tales. Sailors tell about the unusual, farmers about the usual. From a sailor we learn about far-away

3 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page Thesis Eleven (Number ) lands and strange happenings that we are unlikely to see or experience ourselves. The farmer speaks about daily life that, although different, is still comparable to our own. Autobiographies written by people of outstanding achievements and fame unless they tell only about their childhood generally fall into the category of sailor s tales. Great scholars, artists, writers, statesmen late in their lives often feel need to write about the circumstances and the processes that led to their achievements. Others sailors and farmers try to explain, not only to the readers but also to themselves, how their beliefs were formed; or they try to give testimony to the outside world and to the events of public and historical importance that they saw, either being actively involved or only as eyewitnesses. But often the motivation for writing an autobiography is a search for self-knowledge, a need to create a self that otherwise does not exist, to give a meaning to one s own life. The American novelist Philip Roth (1989) claims that Over fifty you need ways of making yourself visible to yourself. And Jean-Paul Sartre tells us that Each wishes to write because each needs to be significant, to signify what he experiences. Otherwise everything goes too quickly, one has one s nose to the ground, like the pig that is forced to dig up truffles. Writing about himself as a small boy, Henry James discovered the child s identity and thus found what he had lacked earlier: something to distinguish me by. Very often digging into one s own childhood serves as therapy, as Freudian psychoanalytical treatment. WHY DID I WRITE MY BOOKS? I am not a personality of great achievements, just an ordinary person who once was an ordinary teenage girl trapped in the walls of the Warsaw ghetto and who later grew into an ordinary woman coping with three children and with the communist regime in Poland. I think I should rather call myself a creature. Was it megalomania then to write about myself and send my manuscript to a publisher? Frankly speaking, I don t think so. Because I never intended to make a hero of myself or to find out and show to the readers something to distinguish me by. My only aim was to serve as an eyewitness, herself deeply involved in striking historical processes of our times. It was history, I believe, that made my life significant and worth writing about. To say more, I have to set my two books apart because the reason for writing each of them was different, as was the language, the style and the method I used. They are not two volumes of the same book but two different books written, as it were, by two different authors: a young one and an old one, an innocent one and a responsible one. At first there was Winter in the Morning. This is a simple account of my childhood as a daughter of a prosperous Jewish doctor in prewar Warsaw and my adolescence, which began and ended together with the Second

4 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page 29 Bauman: Memory and Imagination 29 World War and the Nazi occupation of Poland. If I am to speak about this book, I must first tell you a little about its contents, that is about my early life. I was 13 when the war began and 14 when with my mother and younger sister Sophie I was forced to leave our comfortable home in the Christian part of Warsaw and move into the ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto was surrounded with high walls topped with barbed wire. The gates were heavily guarded from both the outside and the inside. The death penalty awaited Jews who tried to sneak out of the ghetto and the same fate was intended for Christians entering the ghetto without a special permit. At the beginning, 300,000 people a third of the whole Warsaw population were crammed into the scant space between the walls, but very soon Jews from little towns and villages were also herded into the Warsaw ghetto and its population rapidly grew to half a million. Thousands of families were robbed of their belongings, reduced to utter poverty, and left with nowhere to live. They lived in the streets begging for food and died on the pavements from starvation and infectious diseases. On the other hand, those who still had a roof over their heads, no matter how small, and some money to buy food from the black market, tried somehow to get on with their lives in those inhuman conditions. The gap, the divide between the haves and the have-nots, was appalling: it was a divide between life and death. The living and the dying literally rubbed shoulders in the overcrowded streets. I belonged to those more fortunate. I had a roof over my head, my own bed, and something to eat three times a day. I worked in the cemetery growing vegetables for the starving. I enjoyed some concerts of classical music. I also resumed my high-school education, attending secret classes with a few friends and a few teachers. Day after day, on my way to work or to lessons and back, I walked along the streets strewn with dying people and corpses stretched on the pavements, covered with newspapers held down with bricks. It was extremely hard to live with. At first, I couldn t sleep at night and felt guilty because I had a home and didn t starve. But little by little, I got used to it and stopped paying much attention to the dying beggars. It s a sad truth that in inhuman conditions, people become callous, selfish, sometimes even cruel themselves. At least insensitive. After a few months of living in the ghetto, I too became insensitive. Because there s only a certain amount of suffering you can take in and still retain your ability to feel pity. Beyond this point you become blind and deaf and learn somehow to live with misery all around you. During the first 20 months when I studied, grew cabbage and beetroot, and listened to music, 100,000 people died in the Warsaw ghetto from starvation, diseases, random shooting in the streets, and suicides. The worst was still to come. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis set about the Final Solution of the Jewish question, which meant the physical extermination of all Jews in all the countries of occupied Europe. From the Warsaw ghetto between

5 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page Thesis Eleven (Number ) 5000 and 13,000 people daily were deported straight to the gas chambers of Treblinka. For six months my mother, my sister and I were on the run, hiding in some awful places, in dark and wet cellars, in stuffy lofts, in holes in the walls concealed behind some heavy pieces of furniture, in the ruins, under the rubble, with no light, no food and not enough air to breathe properly. We were extremely lucky: we were never discovered in our hiding places, although death was always next door. In January 1943, when the ghetto shrank to several blocks only and we lost all hope of surviving there, the three of us escaped beyond the walls. Now, after having spent more than two years in the ghetto, we embarked upon a two-year period of hiding among the Christian population. It was the death penalty for Jews found outside the ghetto, as well as for any Poles who sheltered the Jews or helped them in any way. High reward was promised to anyone who would denounce a hiding Jew to the Gestapo. And yet we found somewhere to stay: a respectable Polish family took us under their roof, where we lived locked in a small room, never going out, never coming near the window, trying to remain inaudible and invisible to the strangers. But, despite all these precautions, we were soon discovered by some rascals and blackmailed, so we had to flee. After that we were on the run for nearly two years, coming across all sorts of people who for this or that reason risked their own lives and the lives of their relatives to help us. There were professional families and working-class families, often members of the Polish resistance. There was a drug addict who needed money to buy her drugs and an occultist who believed in providence and for that reason was not afraid to have us. There was a friendly prostitute who night after night entertained SS officers while we laid in fear in the next room. And a young country priest and his octogenarian mother in a little village who not only sheltered us but also gave us food without any reward. Time after time we had to run away because someone threatened to denounce us to the Nazis. We were robbed of all our money and belongings and our clothes were reduced to tatters. On our way we met utter cruelty and corruption but also people of great courage and integrity. Eventually, we survived the war. In the ghetto, I kept a diary and later, in hiding, wrote short stories about what I had seen and heard. Some scraps of these manuscripts have survived. I neither tried to publish them after the war, nor did I try to write down my memories. For 40 years I did not speak about my ordeal and never told my family and friends the story of my survival. I was not the only one who kept silent. Very many people with similar or far worse experiences remained silent for long years, and some for as long as they lived. Saul Friedländer, a historian of the Holocaust, says that the repression of memory is a characteristic response of the Jewish survivors to their frightening past. In his autobiography entitled When Memory Comes he writes: We Jews erect walls around our most harrowing memories... Even a story complete to the last detail sometimes turns into an exercise in hiding

6 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page 31 Bauman: Memory and Imagination 31 things from ourselves. These necessary defenses are one of the chief features of our most profound dread. Many authors point to a particular event that instantly carried them back into the past and thus induced them to write. For Proust, it seems, it was the taste of a biscuit dipped in tea. For Chateaubriand it was listening to a thrush that sang in the branches of a birch tree. For me it was the death of my mother and a sudden realization that now I was the only one who could tell our story my sister had died much earlier. Throughout all those long years of silence I knew that I should write, that it was my duty to leave a testimony if not to the world at large, then at least for my children and grandchildren. I also felt I owed it to those brave Polish people who had helped the Jews. It is amazing how memory works. Once I made up my mind to recall the past, the memories began to flow in powerful waves. Some long-forgotten happenings and places, names and faces of people I had once known, tunes and smells, my own thoughts and feelings of the time were coming back to me. But could I simply record all this, bit by bit as it was coming? Of course I couldn t. Unlike a diary or a journal, to make sense and be readable an autobiography must have a story-structure: it has to read like a novel. There is no point in overloading it with details that we manage to remember in abundance if they don t help to convey a message, to describe the characters involved, to render the atmosphere or build up dramatic tension. The author must first decide what is the purpose of her writing, what she wants to tell the readers, and then she must act like a sculptor: carve her memories, chop off all that is meaningless, redundant, that does not contribute to the story in any respect. In other words: to write an autobiography is to discover, even to create a meaningful pattern in one s own past. The memories need to be selected according to this pattern. Selecting is the first task, but it is not all. The memories come in bits and pieces, leaving many bigger and smaller gaps. Bits and pieces don t make a narrative: in order to build the narrative the author has to fill the blanks, link the single bits with each other in a smooth and plausible way. Here comes imagination helped by a sense of probability: it could have been so. No autobiography can be written without such a touch of fiction. Shaping the narrative in Winter in the Morning was for me relatively easy. From the very beginning I decided what I was going to write about, what would be the main subject of this book. First and foremost I wanted to show the moral attitudes of the people I had come across during the war and also my own attitudes. Second, I believed it would be interesting to show the process of my coming of age in the unique conditions of the Holocaust. So I stuck to these two subjects, getting rid of all memories that did not contribute and linking those which did by resorting to learnt guesses, to imagination rooted in my past experience: it could have been so.

7 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page Thesis Eleven (Number ) Now you have the right to ask: How true is this story? My answer is: it is a true story of a young girl as she experienced it and as I, the author, remember it. It is not a historical document: it is this young girl s truth. And mine. If another eyewitness of the same events writes quite a different story, it may be true as well: it will be his truth. For example, soon after my Polish translation of Winter in the Morning was published in Poland, I received a letter from a man unknown to me, who claimed that he, too, had lived in the Warsaw ghetto, in fact was my neighbour at Leszno Street. He listed a number of inaccuracies and omissions in my book. But then mentioned that he was 12 years my senior. It is obvious that a 27-year-old man saw the same world differently from a girl of 15. He knew and understood much more than I did. One can t write about life without one s own interpretation. As Goethe said: Truth belongs to all written accounts of one s life, either in relation to matters of fact or in relation to the feeling of the autobiographer; and God willing in relation to both. Writing Winter in the Morning took me almost two years. During that time I tried hard to forget all my subsequent knowledge about the war and the Holocaust. I also tried to black out my present mature reflection. I dived so deep into my past that, for the time of writing, I turned as it were into this young girl that used to be myself. I chose a very simple language as she would have used. I didn t want to make her wiser or better than she d really been. And yet, the truth in autobiography is elusive. Memory itself performs the first sifting process and often rejects some important facts. Then the authors, trying to give a proper shape to their accounts, make their own selection and reject all that seems to be of little importance. But sometimes, unconsciously, they may also reject memories they are reluctant to confess. Writing Winter in the Morning I made a strong, conscious effort to hide nothing that I would have preferred to hide, and so I said many bitter things about the behaviour of some Jews in the ghetto, about my relatives and friends, and about myself. But I still can t be sure if I ve managed to say it all. Some important things could still escape my memory, repressed into subconsciousness. In his last book The Drowned and the Saved Primo Levi says:... many survivors of wars or other complex and traumatic experiences tend unconsciously to filter their memory: summoning their memories they prefer to dwell on moments of respite, on grotesque, strange or relaxed intermezzos, and to skim over the most painful episodes which are not called up willingly from the reservoir of memory and therefore with time tend to... lose their contours. This could have happened to me, too. In his study Design and Truth in Autobiography Roy Pascal claims that no autobiography, no matter how honest, can be free of omissions and distortions. And that is why readers take autobiographies not as factual truth but as wrestling with truth. I believe that wrestling with truth I ve done all I could to give an honest, if not full, account of my childhood and adolescence. Once I had started writing, I could hardly stop. As soon as I d finished

8 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page 33 Bauman: Memory and Imagination 33 Winter in the Morning, I began to write my second book. I had to write it because I didn t feel at peace with myself. People who have always felt at peace with themselves and the world around them have no need to write autobiographies. A Dream of Belonging starts at the point where Winter in the Morning ends with the liberation of Poland by the Red Army in January 1945 and it brings the story up to the time of writing into the mid-1980s. The first years after the war made me dream about going to Palestine I realized that Jewish survivors were unwanted in Poland and I was ready to leave. But my studies, and someone who I met and later married, made me change my mind. I began to believe that it was possible to improve the world by fighting all prejudice also racial prejudice and that it was my duty to stay where I was and devote myself to the cause of socialism. This belief, step by step, brought me into the ranks of the Communist Party. For many years I combined my studies, my family duties and a fascinating career in Polish film with political work. But with the passing of time I felt more and more bitter and disillusioned. The crisis came with the Six Day War in the Middle East and an outburst of ferocious antisemitism in Poland initiated and fanned by the Polish government and the Communist Party to which I myself belonged. Soon I gave up my party membership and so did my husband. In 1968, sacked from work, harassed by security agents, the media, and some more small-time antisemitic rascals, we took our tormented children and left Poland for Israel. After three years of a comfortable life but of spiritual discomfort, we left Israel and came to England to start from scratch a totally different life with different comforts and discomforts. My first book was written in chronological order: month by month, year by year. But to describe 40 years of a busy and unsettled life in chronological order would have been sheer madness. My memories were still fresh, I remembered those 40 years much better than the six years of the war. So, from the huge, shapeless bulk of memories I had to select what was truly significant. I had to find a pattern in my life, which still continued while I was writing. This was the first and a very hard thing to be done, but it was not the most important. The teenage girl in Winter in the Morning was like a snooker ball pushed around without any choice by the cue of History. Even if she grew selfish and stole food or books it was not entirely her fault and I, the author, could write about this without feeling profoundly ashamed. But the key character in A Dream of Belonging is a grown-up woman: she can choose, she is responsible for what she is doing. And she does quite a lot. She is not a snooker ball, she is a player. And so I, the author, looking back at her couldn t just describe what she did: I had first to explain to myself why she did this or that and pass a moral judgement. So the second book needed far more structuring and wrestling with the truth than the first one. It was no longer a matter of carving out, of getting rid of what was unnecessary; this time I had to pick what was essential out of the vast bulk of my memories and

9 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page Thesis Eleven (Number ) piece the fragments together, give to them an overall shape, build a plot. For doing this good memory was not enough it also needed a good deal of imagination and was almost like writing a novel. As the starting point and the pivot in A Dream of Belonging serves the present time: a retired woman lives happily in a big house in Leeds, keeps busy with all sorts of things, and recalls her past. As it usually happens, her memories stray, they don t come in chronological order but in flashes from the remote or the more recent past. Looking back from the long distance of her present age and experience she can now judge her younger self as if she were a different person. What is truth and what is fiction in this book? Yes, I confess, sometimes I had to resort to fiction to show the truth. To quote Roy Pascal again: all autobiographies must, like novels, have a story-structure. But it would be wrong to suppose that this imposes a regrettable limitation on their truthfulness... it is their mode of presenting truth. I will try to explain this by giving you an example from A Dream of Belonging. There was no point in multiplying characters, in showing two men of similar background and experience. Making a single person out of the two not only helped to give the plot clarity but also stressed the importance of this character. Another example: I introduced dialogues. I m sure all dialogues in all autobiographies are invented and yet they serve as means of conveying the truth. I mentioned at the beginning that autobiographies are very popular with readers they are widely borrowed from libraries and bought from bookshops. What is the reason for such popularity, what makes people take an autobiography from a bookshelf, what do they hope to find for themselves in these highly personal accounts? It doesn t need much explaining as far as life-stories of famous people are concerned: it s pretty obvious that we want to get first-hand knowledge about Churchill or de Beauvoir, or whichever celebrity. But what makes people read about someone like myself: a totally anonymous person telling her personal story? The countless letters from readers that I ve received and am still receiving have helped me think this through. First and foremost, autobiographies satisfy a natural human curiosity about the ways other people live, think and feel. It is fascinating to enter the private life of someone else knowing that it is a true person and her or his true life. Though it reads like a novel, an autobiography gives the reader a much deeper insight into the consciousness of a fellow human being the key character and the author. The direct, first-hand knowledge acquired from the book gives the reader a strong impression that she or he knows the author personally, it makes the readers sympathize with the key character and judge it as if it were a friend. Very many letters I ve received from unknown readers begin like this: Dear Janina, Forgive me using your first name but after having read your book I feel I know you well. Or a telephone call from a kind-hearted Yorkshire woman who went to the trouble of finding my

10 an (jr/d) 7/11/02 3:01 PM Page 35 Bauman: Memory and Imagination 35 telephone number in order to ask whether I ve found my peace of mind at last. I believe that many readers reach for autobiographies in order to compare the lives and experiences of other people with their own. A woman from Surrey wrote: I want to thank you. Reading of your experiences, I inadvertently found a solution and answer to a problem of my own. She doesn t say what her problem was. But some others do. Sometimes what troubles them seems far removed from my experience and yet they think it has much in common with what I ve said in A Dream of Belonging. A middle-aged woman from Sheffield confesses that for many years she was involved with a sect and followed a guru first to India, then to the USA but was bitterly disappointed when her guru turned out to be a crook. After having read my book, an American university lecturer in her early 40s reflects upon AIDS: she feels guilty since in the 1960s working to change certain sex taboos and sanctions we unwittingly exposed some people to a death they would otherwise have not had to face. Or finally, a man from a village in the Scottish Highlands who was born on the same day as me he compares our lives, year by year. I believe that people read autobiographies to learn from other people s experience how to live, how to find a meaning in their own lives, how to patch up their own experiences, to find in them a meaningful pattern. Janina Bauman (Lewinson) was born in 1926, a daughter of an assimilated Jewish doctor in Warsaw. As a teenager she survived the Holocaust in the Warsaw ghetto and in hiding. After the war she studied social sciences and philosophy at the University of Warsaw and worked in Polish film. In 1968 with her husband and three daughters she left Poland and in 1971 settled in Leeds, UK. Here she wrote and published two autobiographical books. She also writes in Polish and has many publications in Poland. Address: 1 Lawnswood Gardens, Leeds L16 6HF, UK. References Bauman, J. (1986) Winter in the Morning. London: Virago. Bauman, J. (1988) A Dream of Belonging. London: Virago. Benjamin, W. (1969) Illuminations. New York: Schocken. Coe, R. (1984) When the Grass Was Taller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Eakin, P. (1985) Fictions in Autobiography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Friedländer, S. (1980) When Memory Comes. New York: Avon. Levi, P. (1988) The Drowned and the Saved. London: Michael Joseph. Pascal, R. (1960) Design and Truth in Autobiography. London: Routledge. Pilling, J. (1981) Autobiography and Imagination. London: Routledge. Roth, P. (1989) The Facts: A Novelist s Autobiography. London: Cape. Sartre, J. Les Mots. London: Routledge. Young, J. (1988) Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust. Indiana University Press.

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