Narratives can haunt. What haunts our memories is more than images and words, but the actual world of experience behind them.
I am looking at a film of an old man sitting in an armchair being interviewed by a disembodied male voice with an Australian accent. The old man is in his seventies and has receding white hair. He has an unmistakeably Semitic nose and his name is Szymon, which the viewer cannot miss since the interviewer keeps falling over the pronunciation. Szymon was my father and the video is the recording of an interview for a documentary that, as far as I know, was never made. It was to be an account of the last two surviving members in Australia of the Dabrowski regiment—one of the Polish regiments of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. It is the testament of a survivor of a war that presaged the carnage of the Second World War. This war was vicious on a scale rarely seen up to that point, but was soon to be succeeded by something much worse.
This video is now almost 30 years old. Watching it reminds me of the hard man who was my father. But it also reminds me of the man of whom I was intensely proud, as well as the one about whom I spent much of my life feeling highly ambivalent. So here I am, an adult woman who is now not many years younger than he was when he was filmed, and I am trying to make sense of his life narrative. The video is only one small part of this, but it has intrigued me for the 30 years and I have held onto it.
The American academic Eric Santner uses a lovely term to describe much of the contemporary desire to make meaning from personal stories: ‘narrative fetishism’. It refers to the use of a narrative to eradicate the trauma that first produced it. Santner was writing about the way post–Second World War Germany was attempting to come to terms with the war by resituating the German people as victims rather than aggressors. Narrative fetishism is a way of mourning by mythologising trauma. This mythologising also underscores Australians’ view of the losses of the First World War, and I wonder if it plays a part in the way I have thought about my father and his survival of the Second World War.
Writer Maria Tumarkin calls the contemporary desire to tell our individual stories the ‘platitude du jour of our times’ and I cannot disagree. I have been working my way through the deluge of books and memoirs of second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors and at times I have become enraged. While the effects of the trauma of war, genocide and violence on such a scale clearly work their way through to the succeeding generations, our contemporary desire to interpolate ourselves into the experience diminishes it. My pain is not my father’s pain. I need to say this before I go any further. I have not experienced violence, hunger, torture or deprivation. In many ways I am singularly unskilled for the task of telling this tale.
The interview with Szymon goes for many hours. It is made on a single day and by the end he is clearly showing his age. He begins the day in a leather armchair, something like a La-z-Boy, which means he is constantly rocking back and forth. Later in the recording they change armchairs to an awful pink material thing. He is wearing a light-coloured fair isle–style jumper, so it must be winter, but why he is not wearing just a shirt is beyond me. The jumper is bulky and stupid. Perhaps he is wearing it because he is doing the usual Szymon thing and not using the heating in the house. But I wonder why style doesn’t seem to matter to the interviewer or director. It matters to me as I watch it, though. A stupid jumper and a dreadful pink armchair. Sometimes I am pleased the film was never finished.
My father’s style of speech, the waving of his hands, the pointing of the fingers to emphasise something important—these things were all there. When he is thinking about an answer, he brushes the side of his nose with his finger. He often smiles to himself before he answers with some anecdote. He never gets angry with the interviewer. He was like this with most people outside his family and close friends. Little would rile him, or at least he would not let his feelings show that way.
But this was not the way he presented to his family. I am taken back to my lifelong feelings about him, and I don’t want to be, because I need to be as dispassionate a viewer as he is an interview subject. In her book about the year after the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion does an incredible double-act of placing herself outside herself at the same time as she told her own story. Like Didion, I need to be able to look at myself and not be myself in the moment. I need to watch my father but not be his daughter. However, slippage is inevitable.
The interview is in English, which was not my father’s first language. It was not his second, third or fourth language—it was his seventh. He learned English when we came to Australia, when he was in his fifties. All the way through the interview he falls over some words, not because he can’t find them, but because the word might come to him first in French, then in Yiddish and then in English. At times he confounds himself with all the languages he has had to speak in his life. In the video he is frustrated and amused at the same time.
He gave the video to me after he had done the interview. He did not tell me beforehand that anyone had contacted him or that they were going to film him. I never asked him why he would treat his daughter in this dismissive way. My mother was dead by then and he was moving on, so I assumed he was moving on from me as well. A psychologist once told me that this was a common way of dealing with trauma by many Holocaust survivors—to continue living they needed to move on, since this was how they survived in the first place.
The interviewer takes him through the story chronologically. He starts in Poland, as a 15-year-old, when he joined the illegal communist movement. He tries to be as methodical as possible, he wants to get this right. But right does not necessarily mean truthful. He keeps many of the details out of this particular narrative. Still, it is a great story, well told. And when one realises what was to come, it is haunting. The road back to Poland was long, difficult and tragic at every level.
I am reminded of the work by the psychologist Jerome Bruner, who argued that there are two ways of presenting the past: as reasoned argument and as story. Reasoned argument relies on facts and an insistence on the ‘truth’. Stories rely on verisimilitude, which means they are perhaps not always factual, not always the full truth, but are likely to be closer to the real experience.
So it is my work now to tell my father’s story, which is ironic, really, since he never wanted me to tell it. It never belonged to me. By the end of his life he wanted to make the separation between us clear, and one way to do this was to emphasise my failings because I was not like him—I would succumb to emotions and weakness when what is needed to survive in this life is to show no emotion to your torturer. In this interview it starts to become clear to me that what was important to him was to make a clear historical account, with nothing more than a wry smile for emphasis. In a later documentary that was made about his (and others’) time in Auschwitz, other old men broke down and cried.
He was more intent on making sure the story was told as a testament, not a personal, psychological cleansing. After spending almost all my adult life as a sociologist trying to introduce human emotions into the understanding of the human world, I am beginning to appreciate the importance of stepping back from them, at least at a professional level. Bearing witness is such an overdone trope now it has become a cliché, but Szymon needed to bear witness. Eric Santner argues that historians write for intellectual rather than psychic mastery of events but that the elaboration and understanding of any event ‘implicates the historian in the labors of psychic mastery’. If you insert sociologist and daughter into the sentence in the place of historian, then you see my dilemma with this project.
In this story, Szymon starts in Poland in 1930 as the young bodyguard for a parliamentarian who belonged to a front party for the communists. This is important because it meant that Szymon was trained to use guns and weapons. He also relates that the police in Poland were ready to use violence against demonstrators and he spent many nights locked up and beaten. It was expected.
When the call came for volunteers for Spain, he was a rare breed. At first, he says, the party only wanted to send men with military training to Spain, but not many volunteered. Many of those who would have been happy to go were in the army, since the state press-ganged political prisoners into national service. He doesn’t explain how he got out of that particular predicament, but he knew how to use a gun and knife, so he went.
In early 1938 he began his trek south to Spain. Crossing illegally into Czechoslovakia in the company of one other person, he arrived in Austria, where he was imprisoned. After his release he was smuggled across the border to Switzerland. The Swiss police caught him and sent him back to Austria because he could not pay a bribe. Here I remember a story replete with irony that he did not tell the interviewer but that he told us more than once.
In Austria before the Anschluss (the German incorporation of Austria into the greater Reich) he was sitting in a cell in Feldkirchen and became friendly with a local who was there because of his membership of the then illegal Nazi party. This man would have known that Szymon was one of the hated race, due to his very Jewish nose. Still, it was this man who helped my father make contact with someone to take him over the border to Switzerland and made sure he had food and shelter. Szymon did not see this man as evil, but as someone who was on the wrong side of the struggle. I wonder why Szymon did not relate this story to the interviewer, but I think he tailored his stories to his audience, and perhaps he did not want to give away his fascist-fighting credentials.
He finally got to Paris where he met with a group of volunteer fighters to begin their travels south to Spain by various means. A couple of incidents he recounts are close calls. They were on a bus at night from Perpignan (in the south of France) when their guide told them to get off the bus immédiatement. The police stopped the bus a little further up the road, but it was obviously empty of illegals. He does not know how the guide knew the police were coming, but their timing was perfect. The second incident is a comical tale of walking in single file over the Pyrenees in a terrible storm, when one of their comrades, a slight man, was flung in the air by a great gust of wind. This forced them to stop to recover the poor man. He laughs at the memory, at the very ridiculousness of the story.
Those in his group were mostly refugees who had been living in France. They were Poles (including Jews), Germans, Austrians, Romanians and Bulgarians, even a couple of Finns. In particular, it was Polish Jews who made up a large proportion of the International Brigades. It has been estimated that Jews made up to half the Poles, one-third of the Americans and one-fifth of the British volunteers. There was even a company with the Polish brigade called Botwin that was completely Jewish and spoke only Yiddish, but there is no evidence that Szymon was a member of that particular company. Unlike many other Polish Jews of the time, Szymon’s Polish was perfect, with no suggestion that his first language was Yiddish.
The interviewer asks him his thoughts on why he went to Spain and he considers this. Looking back, he says, he was there to fight fascism. Franco had the Africa Corps and the right-wing parties in Spain for support, plus the military help of the Nazi war machine and Mussolini’s Fascist Italians. ‘For me personally, and for a lot of us, it was where we could physically fight back, and even hold off the march of fascism.’ He is trying very hard to remember and explain what was happening all those years ago. He is asked what he felt, and he says that he was prepared to fight, but he did not feel anything in particular. He says that he does not want to make up anything post facto, so he is unwilling to put emotions he can’t remember into this story.
Maybe it is my character, something to do with me personally … the point … I’d been thinking only of fighting in that time … that time my [he starts to lose his fluency in English] the main desire had been to be prepared to receive a carabin [a rifle] to fight, emotionally … I don’t want to make up something I don’t feel.
Then he is asked what he thinks about the stories of deserters being shot. The shooting of deserters in the International Brigades was used for 50 years as a propaganda tool by the right wing to show the perfidy of Stalinists and the wider communist movement. Most deserters who were brought to trial were not executed but many were, and it is still a nasty chapter in a greater story.
My father’s response to the interviewer about the executions becomes very hard for me to hear. I remember talking to him as a teenager about deserters being shot and we argued very loudly, I very emotionally. I have spent the last few years softening towards Szymon, but I am reminded that we sanctify those who are long dead for our own purposes. When I was young I could not understand the position he took in relation to the executions of deserters. In particular, he made very disparaging comments about the Americans who could go home if the war did not suit them, whereas fighters such as Szymon could not. By that stage, the Polish government had cancelled the citizenship of any Pole fighting for the Republicans. The Brigadists needed to keep their nerve—they had no other choice since they could not go home, and the Francoists took no prisoners.
‘I did not come to Spain for a month or a year,’ he said, ‘but people from the Western democratic countries … they engaged themselves in a timetable.’ He says that at the time he thought punishment for desertion was needed, but later he found out that many punishments were harsh and politically motivated. Szymon tells the interviewer that he remembers one Polish captain who was known to have shot deserters, but he could not tell how many had been killed, although there was talk after every battle when there was a reshuffle of fighters to the front. In the Dabrowski regiment there was one deserter who was kept in a prison that was moved around with the regiment, awaiting a court martial that never happened. This man found himself in France after the war, as the regiment did. Szymon did not think this was justice, but he laughed at the man’s luck for surviving.
This is one of the most difficult moments for me in his story. Some people who really knew have told me that Szymon was one of the bravest and heroic men they had ever met. He never betrayed a comrade, even under the most dreadful of tortures. I latched onto those stories, the stories of the hero. But the story of the treatment of deserters is as much his story as anything else. How could you countenance the execution of someone from your own side? But he does confess something here that I had not heard him say in years past. He admits that Stalinist agents had people executed for political purposes, and sometimes used claims of desertion to hide their crimes. There is no remorse from Szymon, or at least he does not show it as emotion. But perhaps the viewer can read into his change of heart towards deserters and the Soviet agent stories as a form of remorse.
He tries hard to remember the exact details of names and events. It is so important to him to remember, and not cloud the memories with ‘false considerations’, as he says. He is critical of one of the commanders, a Russian major from the Soviet Union, whom he considered inadequate to the task of leading the brigade. In particular, Szymon talks about the strategy he was trying to teach them: that a revolutionary army never retreated. Szymon knew this to be a false strategy—‘Not only theoretically, but doubly false in practice’. The Polish officers, on the other hand, may not have been so well prepared in training, but their ‘fighting initiatives were very high’—in other words they were courageous. He quotes a saying that was popular in the International Brigades, ‘with the Poles in attack and the Germans in defence—never the fascists would pass’. His first taste of battle in war was at the River Segre.
Really to be very honest with myself—the first few hours were a terrible fascist bombardment. My impression is that I lost my head, it was so intense a fight, the point what I … the bombs were very near and it takes me a little bit of time to come to myself. After the first shock, it’s been a shock, fighting is going on very intensely for three, four hours and we lost a lot of people. After the first shock, I start to be myself … it’s hard to find the words in English … very hard. No stop, I cannot …
He is not saying here that he cannot go on because the emotions have got to him. He wanted to be very precise about his descriptions and the English words that he knew were not enough. I remember him saying to me when I was young that he was proud of his abilities as a machine gunner. His pride was in his skill, but it may also have been in his ability to kill, I do not know from this distance of time. Our arguments were in the middle of the Vietnam War, and as an arrogant teenager I attacked him mercilessly for his pride. Here we were fighting against the war and he was proud of his ability as a machine gunner!
For many years afterwards I was sorry about my position. I felt that I had attacked him from ignorance. Of course he should have been proud of his abilities to kill in a war—it was a war. But retrospectively, I think that what was important to him in our arguments, even if I was wrong, was that I stood up to him. He was frightening when he was in full flight but it was important that I kept my nerve. He didn’t want a coward in the family. Standing up, fighting and persevering, that was what was important to him.
In the interview he then talks about the republican offensive and the battle of Gandesa where he was wounded. He describes it as a ‘terrible’ fight. The interviewer asks him to give a description and he sits up straight and tries very hard to be precise. He says that they should have planted the machine guns in the soil to get decent traction, but they couldn’t because the fascist forces were shooting in an uninterrupted fashion—‘from the infantry and bombardment from high … We tried a few times to take the town, to go into the town, and we lost a lot of people. [He makes a chopping motion.] We were cut down.’
Here he tells a story that he told many times over the kitchen table when I was young. But I hadn’t known until now that it was from this particular battle. It was about a fascist sniper who was picking off the Polish fighters. Two fighters were killed or wounded and it was Szymon’s turn to take their post. He held the position for more than 24 hours: a period of constant vigilance and threat, but he maintained the position and the enemy did not pass. Then he was wounded himself. Luckily it was with a normal bullet, he says, because before him the others had been shot with dum-dum bullets that explode on impact, tearing into flesh and causing dreadful injuries. This bullet just grazed his head and destroyed his hearing in that ear. They took him out and the battalion lost the position. This is what he did; he persevered until he couldn’t go on any longer.
It was after this that he was sent to hospital near Barcelona, a hospital called Mataro that still exists today. He loved that time in the hospital and he loved the chance that he got there to get to know Spain and the people of Catalonia. The food was good, as was the medical help. He learned about the Spanish and Catalan people and about the political differences within the republican movement. He began to understand the importance of anarchism to the republicans as well as the POUM or the Trotskyists.
To be denounced as a Trotskyist in the communist brigades was to be called a traitor. In the interview he mentions a time when he was denounced as a Trotskyist by one of the officers but he talked his way out of the danger. To me he told a longer and more dramatic story that involved being locked up and threatened with re-education back in the Soviet Union (newspeak for execution), and an escape back to the front where he persuaded his commander of his fidelity to the party. He would always rather take his chances with his comrades in battle, he told me. It wasn’t until 1956 and Khruschev’s famous secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes that he began to understand the monstrous crimes and betrayals that in many ways he had been party to.
The period in the hospital also meant chances for sex with the local girls. The interviewer asks him what was most important about getting a few days leave and he immediately says ‘sex and food’. Although he was never fat he always ate with a hearty appetite and was merciless towards me if I left anything on the plate. My parents’ love for each other centred around these two activities. I guess for those whose lives and very existences are constantly under threat, there is not much else.
The hospital was mainly staffed by American doctors and head nurses. The other staff were Spanish and Catalan locals. What he also appreciated in the hospital was the lack of distinction between the officers and the other ranks. They all received the same treatment, in the same wards. Only the American brigades maintained the distinctions. For all of my life I have known that Szymon hated the requirements of standing armies, particularly the distinction between officers and other ranks. He would never have become a professional soldier. He was more disciplined than any other human being I have ever met, but he truly hated the soldier as automaton. Perhaps this is why he never tells the interviewer one of the really important facts of his time in Spain—that he was an officer in the brigade. It was my mother who told me this. She told me that she did not know it herself until many years into their marriage.
Szymon also does not seem to have told the interviewer of all the communist leaders he knew. They do talk about André Marty, the French communist leader. Szymon describes Marty as harsh and unemotional, disliked by most people around him. This seems to be a pretty accurate description from all the recorded evidence that I could find. But he does not mention the personal relationships he had with the Italian Togliatti, the Yugoslav Tito or others. And most interestingly, he must have come into contact with La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibarruri, head of the Spanish Communist Party, because I have photographs of them together in Spain, and then later in the 1950s in Poland. ‘No Pasaran’ was a fighting call that I remember being thrown around my family home: ‘they will not pass’. It was a call I used to make from my bedroom door to keep my parents out, and it was one that my father held very dear.
When I asked him why he didn’t tell the interviewer the whole truth about his experiences, he answered that there were still Trotskyists out there who could cause trouble. This was in the late 1980s. The Berlin Wall was about to come down and he was still worried about the Trots! He had survived the Stalinist show trials by calling on important friends in the 1950s in Poland, but his hatred of the ‘enemies of communism’ never abated. It is hard from this distance and with so much historical amnesia that now exists to understand the mutual hatred between Stalin and Trotsky. It is also difficult to understand this loyalty to an ideology that produced such brutal results.
The interview then moves to particular battles such as Sebre, Gandesa and the River Ebro. Finally come the heartbreaking accounts of the end. He talks about how the Poles and others who could not return home (unlike the French, British, Australians and Americans) were at first happy to learn that they would be going to Mexico, only to find out that the Americans threatened to blow the ships out of the water. What I didn’t realise until I watched the video again recently was that the brigades were demobbed then decided to volunteer again to save the retreating civilians from the fascist offensive around Barcelona.
He said that no member of what remained of the regiment voted against staying to fight to save the civilians. They were tired, hungry and scared of dying but they voted to stay and fight to save others. For two weeks they fought during the day and retreated at night. It was here that he learned that he could walk and sleep at the same time. They saved about 200,000 people, he said with pride, all of whom would surely have been imprisoned or killed outright.
Watching this part of the video the other day left me weeping. The loss of Spain, the ultimate futility of their fight, is the saddest thing I have imagined for my whole life. While there was much worse to come in his life, it all stemmed from this. He did not cry about it. But I do, still. When the interviewer asks him if he would do it all again, he says, ‘yes … all my life I have fought for democracy and socialism … so yes, I would’.
I have many photographs of him from this period—someone in France must have kept them for him. They are taken in the hospital in Mataro, on May Day 1938 in Barcelona, of the camps in France after the fall. I have one on my wall that an old friend of his gave me after he died. It is a photo of three men standing in front of a monument. The inscription under the photo reads, in English and in Yiddish, ‘The courageous Jewish fighters in Spain—Szymon Zajdow, Chilek Szraga, Pinie Kartin (Andrzej Szmidt), 25 Mart (March) 1938, Barcelona’. They are smiling and relaxed. They are all doomed.
There is a school of thought in Holocaust studies that rejects reading the coming doom into the photographs of the lost Jewish world of Europe. Looking at this photo, I cannot do this though I know I should. I cannot do this—not least because he survived it. Loss, doom and the desire of a man to recount accurately what happened to him and not cloud the memories with his own emotions brings up those emotions in me. This photo is what the academic Anastasia Ulanowicz calls a ‘ghost image’, both as an idea and a photograph. Photographically a ghost image means two or more photographic images superimposed on one another; Ulanowicz argues that it is an appropriate metaphor for second-generation Holocaust memory.
I sit and watch the man who was my father tell a story about himself, not as he is now, but about the person he was then. He wants to bear witness but this particular story was never told outside the room it was filmed in. Because it was never made, it might have disappeared altogether. I don’t know why it was never made, whether it was a lack of money or because the two old men died before it could be properly finished. I don’t know the name of the would-be director, the producer or the interviewer. In many ways it is an excellent metaphor for my father’s life and our relationship. He was my father but he belonged to many others much more than he ever belonged to me. The video was a ghost image.
So I am left with the dilemma that Santner describes for the survival of the writer: my need to differentiate and distance myself from the story and the very practical reality of that. But I cannot. I was brought up by one of the most courageous and heroic of twentieth-century men but, like the character in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Dorigo Evans, he was deeply flawed and ultimately human.
The anthropologist and psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman, whom I quote in the epigraph of this piece, has written about how we humans live through trauma and uncertainty and try to maintain a moral code amid the most terrible and immoral of situations. Most people find this almost impossible to do, but a few somehow manage it. Maria Tumarkin is right to question the current obsession with public storytelling, not least because mostly, thankfully, our lives are rather uneventful. But some stories are important to tell. •
Grazyna Zajdow is an associate professor of sociology in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. She is a co-editor of Arena Magazine, where she has written reviews of film, books and theatre. She has also published in the academic areas of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction and the world of women’s work.