Non­fic­tion

Fam­i­ly His­to­ry of Fear

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Every fam­i­ly has its secrets. The major secret of Fam­i­ly His­to­ry of Fear is revealed on the very first page: at the age of 19, a blond, blue-eyed Pol­ish girl named Aga­ta learns from her moth­er that she is Jew­ish. Con­front­ed with such a humil­i­a­tion and a dis­fig­ur­ing fea­ture,” young Aga­ta hides the secret from the out­side world and from her­self. Forty years lat­er, writer Aga­ta Tuszyńs­ka takes up the task of recon­struct­ing a her­itage con­cealed by fear and forgetting. 

Grow­ing up in Sovi­et-occu­pied Poland, Tuszyńs­ka nev­er met a Jew. Tuszyńska’s moth­er Hali­na sur­vived World War II as a hid­den child, hav­ing escaped from the War­saw ghet­to to the Aryan side” with her­moth­er Dela. As a stu­dent after the war, Hali­na found refuge” and pro­tec­tion with the young Bog­dan Tuszyńs­ki (lat­er a famous sports jour­nal­ist). Resolv­ing to put aside the dif­fi­cul­ty and fear of the war years, Bog­dan and Hali­na com­mit­ted to a bright vision of Com­mu­nism, and to each oth­er. Yet Tuszyńs­ka can­not recall that har­mo­ny: I did not have par­ents. I do not remem­ber them. I had a moth­er. I had a father. Each dis­tinct­ly sep­a­rate.” Her approach through­out the book is this con­stant sep­a­rat­ing: divid­ing a nuclear fam­i­ly into a moth­er and father; sort­ing the mater­nal, Jew­ish and pater­nal, Pol­ish grand­par­ents, great-aunts and broth­ers; untan­gling the strings of divorces, bap­tisms, births and deaths. We quick­ly learn about Bogdan’s Pol­ish, work­ing-class fam­i­ly from Per­lowa Street. And then slow­ly, care­ful­ly, with the help of a his­to­ri­an named Mirek, Tuszyńs­ka recov­ers her mother’s fam­i­ly: the assim­i­lat­ed, aris­to­crat­ic Przed­borskis and the pious, tra­di­tion­al Gold­steins. She also delves deeply into the com­plex motives and expe­ri­ences of mater­nal rel­a­tives who stayed in Poland after the Holo­caust and after the anti-Semit­ic cam­paigns of 1968.

The book is char­ac­ter­ized by rapid jumps and skips. The table of con­tents promis­es slices of sto­ries — there is a Bog­dan I,” Bog­dan II,” and Bog­dan, 37” — and any odd para­graph might begin in the present day and con­clude in the Third Reich. Fig­ures move in and out of focus: a famil­iar Pol­ish grandmother’s face appears fright­en­ing­ly close — wrin­kles and age spots mag­ni­fied — but a Jew­ish great-grand­fa­ther with only one doc­u­ment to his name is sum­moned, blur­ri­ly, in a spec­u­la­tive descrip­tion. Although Tuszyńs­ka writes in the first per­son, stray quotes are scat­tered through­out and whole sec­tions appear to be neat­ly report­ed speech­es of dif­fer­ent inter­view sub­jects. Tuszyńs­ka her­self often plays with per­spec­tives. As the book opens, for exam­ple, she imag­ines her­self twice: first as the lit­tle Jew­ish girl escap­ing from the ghet­to, and then mere pages lat­er as a Pol­ish acquain­tance or sim­ply a neigh­bor of that lit­tle girl, watch­ing her steps. With all of these shifts in time, space, and voice, the title’s claim to a his­to­ry” may seem sur­pris­ing. But it is only through this frag­ment­ed, non-lin­ear, poly­phon­ic cre­ation that Tuszyńs­ka can hold her mixed her­itage togeth­er: Both of them — the Pol­ish and the Jew­ish — are alive in me. Both make me what I am. Even if they oppose one anoth­er and accuse each oth­er — I belong to both.”

Tuszyńs­ka reveals a his­to­ry that is raw, painful, and per­son­al. Sev­er­al times, she almost los­es hope: my efforts to stop time, to change the course of events, restore the mem­o­ry despite his­to­ry, the tired­ness of humans, the pass­ing of time, despite the despair, the tragedy — all my efforts seem in vain.” But she does not stop writ­ing, research­ing, and remem­ber­ing. This book is Tuszyńska’s beau­ti­ful, ter­ri­fy­ing fight to bring her her­itage alive in a fam­i­ly where fear of iden­ti­ty has caused a for­get­ting — at times pas­sive, at times willed — on both sides. Thus Fam­i­ly His­to­ry of Fear emerges as a work of fierce courage.

Relat­ed Content:

Dalia Wolf­son is study­ing Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture — with a focus on Russ­ian and Judeo-lan­guage lit­er­a­tures — at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania.

Discussion Questions