The Upright Heart

Julia Ain-Kru­pa
  • Review
By – September 9, 2016

Styl­is­tic vir­tu­os­i­ty, pen­e­trat­ing emo­tion­al pow­er, and a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic vision com­bine to make this high­ly indi­vid­u­al­ist effort a bril­liant lit­er­ary achieve­ment. Demand­ing and reward­ing, Ain-Krupa’s book is being mar­ket­ed as a nov­el, and it cer­tain­ly has a strong nar­ra­tive dimen­sion, though it might be bet­ter described as a sequence of prose-poems.

The apoc­a­lypse, in this case, is the destruc­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry. What’s left to return to in 1945? Why return? What do sur­vivors do with their sur­vival? What are the sources of iden­ti­ty and rela­tion­ship in a world of death? These are the ques­tions the author explores, ques­tions more felt than articulated.

A Pol­ish Jew named Wolf returns to a shat­tered home­land from Brook­lyn, where he had man­aged to live dur­ing the Holo­caust years. He trav­els by rail with a young man named Wik­tor, who seems a ghost­ly pres­ence. and with a dog he picks up along the way. Wolf gets to his home town, the neigh­bor­hood, the ceme­tery, but what is left seems unre­al. There is noth­ing to attach him­self to. Death is every­where. He belongs in Brook­lyn, where it is eas­i­er to live with his memories.

We learn of a school that taught most­ly Jew­ish girls, a school that went up in flames, as did the forty-one girls — all named Sarah. We sense their ghosts, and we imag­ine the ghosts of the chil­dren they did not grow up to birth. We pon­der on all of those Sarahs, of all the mean­ings we can con­nect to the matriarch’s name.

Ain-Krupa’s book pro­ceeds in larg­er and small­er vignettes, high­ly imag­is­tic and sug­ges­tive, lush to the ear if sound­ed. The nov­el moves in and out of the minds, mem­o­ries, and abort­ed hopes of liv­ing peo­ple who are half-dead and the life-like shad­ows of the depart­ed, or the almost depart­ed: souls still hov­er­ing just above this earth, still cling­ing to what’s left of Jew­ish Poland. In lim­bo. Let them go.

Name­less nar­ra­tors tell of them­selves and of oth­er char­ac­ters who move through the four sec­tions of the book: Olga, Anna, Mary­na, Elż­bi­eta, Niklas, Mateusz. So many of them appear in the promise of youth, a promise that will most­ly like­ly be unful­filled. Glimpses of Kraków, Łódź, Bia­lystok, Ryb­nik, and oth­er places wheel through the pages, along with their ruins. The Upright Heart vis­its a world that had been caught between the can­ni­bal armies of Ger­many and Rus­sia, almost lit­er­al­ly liv­ing off the Jews, eat­ing them either alive or dead.

The sto­ry offers instances of care, gen­eros­i­ty, and courage. But all we can do in the end is mourn. Imag­ine all the yahrzeits, all the tears.

For all this, Julia Ain-Kru­pa gives us some­thing lumi­nous. Some­thing like the memo­r­i­al can­dles ref­er­enced in her book, some­thing like a memo­r­i­al prayer, some­thing that could not exist if hope did not exist.

Relat­ed Content:

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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