Vera Gran: The Accused

Knopf   2013


In the spring of 2003, Agata Tuszyńska stood on the threshold of a dark Paris apartment. After weeks of negotiation she had persuaded 87-year-old Vera Gran to tell her story. Defensive, intermittently paranoid, isolated, “having no nationality” in the words of her French residency card, Gran had withdrawn from the world and lived surrounded by publicity photos and posters, evidence of her exotic beauty and her notable international singing career that began in Warsaw in the 1930s. But over Gran’s postwar career, despite many successes, hung the accusation that she had been a Nazi collaborator. Gran’s accompanist in the Warsaw ghetto, Władysław Szpilman, was enshrined in the film The Pianist. Gran, although cleared of the charges of collaboration, was hounded by accusers wherever she appeared and fought the accusation her entire life. It is this story that Tuszyńska, Polish poet and author, tells after spending Gran’s final years with her.

Gran lived in a dust-covered apartment filled with the records of her life—her appeals to various authorities, her privately published autobiography, her letters. But behind Gran’s memories, documents, and writings are the conflicting memories, documents, and writings of other survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and official records of court proceedings. In navigating the story of Gran’s life, Tuszyńska interviewed the survivors who knew Gran in the ghetto, examined Gran’s papers and correspondence, studied court records. The memories of some people changed over time; some were still bitter, some had softened their views. As Tuszyńska searched whatever leads she found, she found that the truth was illusory, that one person’s truth was not necessarily another person’s truth. Szpilman would not work with Gran after the war because he heard she was a collaborator; she maintained he fingered Jews to be transported to the camps.

As Tuszyńska sifts through the evidence and conversations with survivors, she stops and steps outside Gran’s story to ask both herself and the reader what constitutes justifiable acts of survival, what constitutes collaboration, where does the truth lie. These are questions that cannot be answered by what she has heard and has learned, but for Gran these were not viable questions. Throughout her life—in the ghetto and in the years before and after—Vera Gran was a performer, a performer to support her family in the ghetto, a performer to earn her living, a performer to feel alive. From the many hours spent with Vera Gran, Tuszyńska does, however, ascertain one truth: for those who were touched by the horrors of this war, the war never ended.

In seeking out Vera Gran, Tuszyńska says she did not intend to write a biography, and she never explains what she calls her obsession with Vera Gran’s fate or resolve Gran’s own obsession with clearing her name. But she leaves with the reader painful and lingering questions that force on her or him the difficulty of determining someone else’s truth. Photographs.

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