(1 September 1914 – 1 August 2004)
Zofia Grzesiak, born Nechume Szwarcblat (1914), is an example of a person who felt compelled to write by the Holocaust experience. For many years now she has been writing a monument to the past, to the people of her village and a way of life that has vanished. Her half-dozen short stories and autobiographical novel, Między Horyniem a Słuczą (1992; Between the river of Horyń and Słucz), are actually excerpts from much longer works; the fictionalized autobiography, besides its literary mertis, is important as a historical document. Her late, husband, Tadeusz Grzesiak, who is the hero of the novel (he saved Nechume and her daughter from her first marriage during the Holocaust), estimated that she had written seventeen thousend manuscript pages.
Zofia Grzesiak writes in Polish, the language she started using regularly only during the war, after marrying her gentile husband. Her proses, however is strongly influenced by her native Yiddish. Unlike Julian Stryjkowski, who treats the rythm of Yiddish as a conscious literary device, Grzesiak uses it more spontaneously. Her urge to write has not been accompanied by an urge to publish, since for a long time she was hampered by an inferiority complex steming from what she feels in her inadequate education – barly a few classes in a heder. She is still ashamed of the not infrequent departures from standard Polish in her prose, seemingly unaware that this is what gives her style authenticity and rare appeal.
Born in the village of Kryczylisk in the Polish eastern kesy (borderlands), where from centuries Ukrainians, Jews, and Poles lived together, Grzesiak offers a rich tapestry of cultures in her work, though she concentrates on her Jewish background. In her writing the obliterated Polish-Jewish-Ukrainian world is recaptured. Entering Zofia Grzesiak's world of prose, one is struck by the different sense of time; shtetl time has its own rambling, unhurried pace. One senses strong elements of the shtetl oral tradition, of someone with a story to tell. As for so many others, the Holocaust played a crucial role in developing this sense of urgency within her. Although Grzesiak treats Holocaust itself in her autobiography, her main focus has been on the world that has disappeared, and here is unique and authentic woman's voice from the world. It is in this depiction of the women' place in the shtetl that Zofia Grzesiak makes her most significant contribution; it would be difficult to find another voice in Polish literature that has dealt so powerfully with women's problems in that setting.
Before she started writing some thirty years ago, Grzesiak would tell her stories to her husband, who encouraged her to write them down. Unlike the unhappy characters in the story included here, Grzesiak had a happy marriage. Her husband was her mainstay from the time of the Nazi occupation to his death in 1998. As she says in her autobiography, 'Our little boat has broken masts but it is still afloat. Tosiek [Tadeusz] does not let it under.
prof. Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska