A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
A new novel From Poland recounts the industrialization of rape at Auschwitz.
Kommando Puff is a novel that exposes the lives of two women: Anna, the German mother of an SS-officer accused of war crimes, as she tries to track down Auschwitz survivor Eliza in 1968 Israel, to get her to testify on her son’s behalf. The closest Anna is permitted to come, however, is the opportunity to read Eliza’s journal. What the German woman finds there is a window into guilt and remorse, one she can neither deny nor turn away from. The suffering in the SS-run brothel in Auschwitz continues well after the war and no one is victorious. Is anyone redeemed?
After a decade of being blacklisted as a film director by the Polish Communist government, Dominik W. Rettinger has been a successful screenwriter for the last 20 years, writing such scripts as Ekipa (The Team), with Agnieszka Holland directing, and the 2014 feature film, Stones on a Wall, with Robert Glinski directing, and leading the team of writers of the upcoming Ultraviolet TV series for Sony-AXN. Over the last five years, he has also penned eight published novels in his native Polish, one of which, Klasa (Classmates), has also been published in Germany.
(CS) This novel Kommando Puff is an intuitive exposition of how we pathetic creatures treat each other. To what would you attribute your curiosity about humans interacting in the crucible of a concentration camp?
(DWR) Essentially, my writing must all stem from my years studying anthropology: I need to explore humans’ universality and our peculiarities, how we interact with each other to our benefit but more likely to our great disappointment – or, worse, to our demise. Up to now, my novels have had men as central characters and men have driven the plot. But women have always intrigued me and I determined to shine a klieg light on them.
What I didn’t anticipate was it would take me to a setting I would have preferred to avoid. Auschwitz has always dogged me from my youth on when all our middle school classes would take field trips there. Later, I went as an adult, while escorting Robert de Niro around Poland. He was here with Roman Polanski in the early 90s and decided to go to Auschwitz. But, I found I couldn’t bring myself to enter either of the camps. My cameraman accompanied them, instead.
Many years later, one of my film directors, Magdalena Łazarkiewicz, proposed I look into the story of the SS-run brothel there. Researching the story as heavily as I did (by reading personal memoirs and journals) was excruciating and grueling to the point of producing a certain amount of depression. But, I imagined how the women who lived through it coped, and their voices gave me the strength to somehow plod on. What kept me going definitely was my unspoken commitment to memorializing those women so that future generations would know what was done to those unfortunate women.
(CS) But this is not your typical 12 Years a Slave (which was based on a personal memoir) or The Color Purple opus. Your novel not only fleshes out the grinding and unexpectedly sudden horrors of the camp, but also goes deep into the psyches of the three women – their overpowering sense of guilt and remorse – in very unforeseen ways and the revelations are mind-blowing. The power of the character’s imagination and even wit come through – most particularly in the central character, Eliza. So, let’s examine the humor piece of it first before exploring the main event, that of interior imagination.
(DWR) Yes, in this respect, I revere and emulate authors like Shakespeare – his Romeo and Juliet had the Nurse with the flying sails of her headdress, and Hamlet had his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. So too, Eliza tends to voice the quick quip and genuinely enjoys the oddities of the people around her in her pre-war life on the Riviera.
After all, humor is one feature that sets the human species apart from every other animal. You have to tickle chimps and orangutans to get them to laugh. We, in contrast, are capable of seeing the funny in the blackest situations. And, lord knows, we experience plenty of dire situations in life, many of which we bring on ourselves.
(CS) I cannot imagine a blacker one than a concentration camp or a gulag. So, how would one cope in such a crushing place with the crematoria chimneys always belching out the dust particles of human flesh so nearby? Where life was so expendable… Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning lays out only one way folks might be able to hang on to their humanity.
(DWR) And that would be to go inward. For example, Magdalena’s character shatters into bits because she hadn’t had the chance to learn much about the world before her arrival at the camp and thus to delve deep inside herself before this experience. Eliza was of a different sort, although “delving deep” may not have been her forte.
(CS) Well, you did make her into a pretty savvy student of others. I notice Eliza’s first actual self-exploration came pragmatically so-to-speak when she became delirious from her typhus. Somehow, you thought to combine her previous life as a con artist with her life-threatening present. I thought that was remarkably insightful. How did you that come to you?
(DWR) As a writer, I believe in something that takes place outside of us. It requires humility, listening… We’re merely tools in the hands of a higher consciousness – whether we call it God, the Wisdom of the Universe or Dharma. Sometimes I think this book was dictated to me. There’s no conceit in me saying that.
(CS) You get this question a lot, I’m sure, but does your work as a screenwriter hinder or help when it comes to writing a novel?
(DWR) Readers tell me that, when they read this book, they get the impression of watching a movie. For that matter, they have the same reaction to my other novels. Twenty years of my work on screenplays probably affects the way I build narratives, scenes, dialogues and such. I think in pictures, whether I want to or not. Or rather: I “listen” to pictures. It sounds pretty strange but there you are.
(CS) Can you expound on that? I imagine this is much truer for novels than for screenplays – after all, in movies it is whatever the camera captures under the discerning eye of the director but, here in a book, all you have are words – your words – that have to fill in those pictures with color, texture and depth.
(DWR) That creative spark called the imagination has to be a fine-tuned instrument and this is done only by constantlyhoning it… it is not unlike a Stradivarius violin. Once in tune, the mellowness, the richness of the instrument itself takes over and, in the hands of a virtuoso, it becomes a thing sublime. So, I stand back and listen to the voice of my interior virtuoso in the hope the voice starts and I merely write down the words s/he dictates to me. It truly is a case of me stepping aside and freeing my brain – letting it do the work.
(CS) That becomes essential and salient when you have Eliza explore her guilt and remorse. So, these major characters: Eliza, Magdalena and Anna – did you see them as characters that somehow interplay to achieve a crescendo?
(DWR) That’s a pretty good analogy. However, the German woman, Anna, is the outlier who can only look on the other two and eventually comes to see herself differently.
(CS) Would you say then she’s the one who learns the most?
(DWR) Tough question. They all go through the meat grinder of the camp. No one there remains the same, but she is the only one going through it just mentally.
(CS) I might beg to differ there slightly, sorry. There was one person who remained the same throughout – a minor character, the Poe woman. She seemed to fill the role of the anchor and was the one steady Pole Star in all of it. Did her character come to you early in developing the plot? Was there such a person you came upon in your research?
(DWR) It’s a well enough known fact – as Frankl and others point out – that some people in the camps were able to find strength for survival relying on their memories of art, music, poems, etc. Other deeply religious individuals were able to attain similar results.
(CS) Finally, I’d like to touch on the Jewish piece of this. It adds much, as we find out, as it pertains to Anna but why did you feel the novel required a Jewish element to it?
(DWR) In 1968, the Polish Communist government forced about 20,000 Polish Jews to leave Poland and emigrate. This was after the 7-Day War, when Israel defeated the USSR-backed Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The humiliated Soviets ordered the Polish government to persecute and oust Polish Jews.
1968 was a shock for me. It was my first year of high school and, suddenly, my closest friend announced he was a Jew and had to migrate. I could not understand it. From then on, I’ve had an unambiguous opinion on this subject.
This is not unlike the subject of this unfortunate amendment to the Act regarding the Institute of National Remembrance, which has recently made us become anti-Semitic in the eyes of everyone all over the world. While the bill was being discussed in the Sejm, by February 10th, there were 30 million google search entries from all over the world appearing on the Internet: “Polish death camps.”
So we can safely assume about 100 million people heard about this for the first time. And how many of them understood that these were NOT Polish death camps, but that the Polish parliament and government were simply protesting against the saying they were Polish? Very few, I’m sure. Fake information has been planted in the minds of people the world over. Plus a terrible, undeserved image of Poland. How can we counteract that image? The next law? Congratulations, MPs!
The truth about the Holocaust in Poland is painful, and no statute will change it. Polish men, especially peasants, abetted the Germans’ massacring rampage, slaughtering tens of thousands of Jewish women, men and children hiding in forests. They, Polish blackmailers and regular police are all fully co-responsible for the Holocaust.
In Europe, two nations saved their Jews – the Danes and the Bulgarians. All the others under German occupation contributed to the Holocaust. Poles are unfortunately no exception. Polish men, I will stubbornly repeat to my dying day. We didn’t have a collaborating government, so we shouldn’t talk about Poland’s responsibility.
It’d take a long time to explain the causes of this unfortunate Polish antisemitism, but more than worth an overview for those looking at us from outside. The nobility and the aristocracy are primarily accountable: for centuries, they treated Polish peasants as serfs, keeping these peasants, or more than 70 percent of society, in a terrible state of mental backwardness. They also denied Jews full human rights. And that even goes for Polish burghers.
And as to our nationalists’ accusation that Jews didn’t fight for the independence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth? In May 1831, during the November Uprising, when the Russian army was approaching Warsaw, the Jewish Council proposed issuing and financing Jewish regiments. In Warsaw alone, a town of 130,000 at that time, there were 40,000 Jewish residents. What did the Polish government do? It rejected the Jewish Council’s offer with contempt. And then it established a tax four times higher for the Jews than that paid by other citizens. Never before had Jews come out with such an offer.
Unfortunately, Polish nationalists only learn the history that confirms their myths about a beautiful, just Republic. I love my homeland too. However, I do make sure that is not blind love.
So, as you can see, I feel a deep responsibility toward all Jews, women and anyone who has been shafted by the system. All in all, patriarchal societies are brutally cruel and harm people – most especially women – who least deserve it. Thankfully, women have inner strength. I hope that comes through in this book.
Having served as a foreign student exchange coordinator in the Atlanta (GA) area and taught journalism and French on the high school and college level, Christine Skarbek is a screenwriter in her own right with two scripts to her credit. One is based on the life of her namesake, Krystyna Skarbek, the most decorated woman of WWII. For nearly the last decade, Christine has been translating novels, theatre plays and screenplays in Poland.
Interview copyright 2018 Dominik W. Rettinger and Christine Skarbek