I’d Like to Say Sor­ry, but There’s No One to Say Sor­ry To: Stories

By – February 7, 2022

The thir­ty-one sto­ries that com­prise this fic­tion debut by writer and oral his­to­ri­an Mikołaj Gryn­berg span years – even decades – in their reck­on­ing with the after­math of the Holo­caust on the lives of the Pol­ish peo­ple. Com­press­ing time in such an extreme way allows Gryn­berg to depict the types of wounds that fes­ter over life­times and to observe trau­mas that are passed down fam­i­ly lines and infect an entire society.

To achieve as much as he does in this slim and ele­gant vol­ume, Gryn­berg for­goes tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions, such as scene set­ting and char­ac­ter descrip­tion, and hones in on his char­ac­ters’ vivid voic­es to evoke their sad, strange worlds. Each vignette takes the form of a mono­logue: a plea, a com­plaint, a cry for help, a joke, a rant, a his­to­ry les­son. Sev­er­al direct­ly address a hypo­thet­i­cal Jew­ish read­er, pre­sum­ably Gryn­berg him­self, demand­ing com­pas­sion, abso­lu­tion, under­stand­ing, or expla­na­tions. What is it about you Jews, that what­ev­er any­one says about you, it’s nev­er a neu­tral sub­ject?” snarls one rat­tled Pol­ish man after learn­ing, in mid­dle age, that he is Jew­ish. Gryn­berg spent years inter­view­ing Pol­ish Jews for his pre­vi­ous three works of non­fic­tion, and in I’d Like to Say Sor­ry but There’s No One to Say Sor­ry To, he dis­tills the essence of the sto­ries peo­ple have left in his safekeeping.

Grynberg’s furtive, agi­tat­ed pro­tag­o­nists are wracked with doubt and crip­pled by their secrets. They crave con­nec­tion and cathar­sis and bris­tle against their lots in ways both hor­ri­fy­ing and dark­ly humor­ous: a Pol­ish Jew­ish man joins Chris­t­ian pil­grim­ages to Israel year after year to dis­guise the true nature of his vis­its to his fam­i­ly in Tel Aviv; a wealthy gen­tile with Semit­ic fea­tures begs a rab­bi to pro­vide him with a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of non-Jew­ish­ness” to curb the anti­se­mit­ic attacks wrought on him by resent­ful employ­ees; three mod­ern day Pol­ish girls plays at being hid­den Jews dur­ing World War II, enrag­ing their anti­se­mit­ic father; a man feels so con­flict­ed in his iden­ti­ty that he’s able to play chess against him­self, the Pole against the Jew, “…and you know who wins? Some­times one, some­times the other.”

The nuances of Poland’s dif­fi­cult Jew­ish his­to­ry are most direct­ly addressed in the sto­ry Com­mon Good,” in which a his­to­ry teacher instructs the writer how to write about Poland’s past in a palat­able fashion:

Please keep paint­ing a beau­ti­ful pic­ture of that for­got­ten Jew­ish world for us, because we miss it…[But] you can’t slan­der the nation…Who do you owe your lives to? To us, the Poles, of course. We put our own fam­i­lies’ lives on the line to save you…But all we ever hear from your bunch is how the Poles were worse than the Ger­mans. If you peo­ple want to keep liv­ing here, you’d bet­ter accept reality.

These sto­ries are fic­tion­al, but the threats, sad­ly, are not. Since the right-wing pop­ulist Law and Jus­tice par­ty came into pow­er in 2015, a rewrit­ing of his­to­ry has begun. Accounts of the war that allege Pol­ish com­plic­i­ty with the Nazis are now said to dis­hon­or the coun­try; aca­d­e­mics have been ordered by civ­il courts to apol­o­gize for their work on the Holo­caust. Gryn­berg, in an inter­view with his Amer­i­can trans­la­tor, Sean Gasper Bye, talks about the chang­ing recep­tion of his work in Poland. Over the last few years, I’ve become some­one who’s peri­od­i­cal­ly con­sid­ered an ene­my of Poland. Some­one you can tell to his face that he isn’t a Pole.”

Basia Wino­grad, a New York City – based writer and film­mak­er, teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Hunter College.

Discussion Questions

I’d Like to Say Sor­ry, but There’s No One to Say Sor­ry To is an inven­tive exam­i­na­tion of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and how we remem­ber the Holo­caust. Through a series of very short sto­ries, Gryn­berg intro­duces us to a host of char­ac­ters unex­plored in lit­er­a­ture. These include Poles who learn about their Judaism from aging par­ents, youths attend­ing sum­mer camp as the sole Jew, Chris­t­ian chil­dren caught up in sub­tle anti­semitism look­ing to find hid­den Jews in their midst, and a grand­moth­er pre­tend­ing to be a boy’s moth­er since the lat­ter died in the Shoah. Each sto­ry packs a punch in its own way. Since the sto­ries are so short — some­times only a few pages — the author allows the char­ac­ters to become arche­types with­out grow­ing stale. In this way, Gryn­berg helps his read­ers see them as real peo­ple, suf­fer­ing under the bur­den of mem­o­ry, secre­cy, and guilt. This is the kind of book you read slow­ly, savor­ing every sto­ry, for even with­in its brevi­ty, it con­tains worlds.