Yet another book I grabbed from the public library during a recent visit was Hanna Krall’s The Woman From Hamburg and Other True Stories. Once again, it was one of those books I impulsively grabbed off the shelf, despite not knowing anything about the book or its author. After finishing it the other morning, I’m happy to report that I rather enjoyed it.
Krall’s book, published in the United States in an English language version in 2005, is a collection of accounts, all purported to be true, of various lives impacted by the horrors of the Holocaust. While I’ve read fictional, autobiographical and historical versions of that period, I’ve never read anything written in the New Journalism style. Popularized by the avant garde American journalists and essayists such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson, New Journalism flipped conventional journalism on its head by blending the objective-based traditional “just the facts, ma’am” journalism with techniques previously only employed by novelists: detailed scene descriptions ; dialog and the willingness to delve into the human subjects’ motivations, emotions and internal monologues much the way a novelist would with his/her created characters. Using this method with the occasional dash of magical realism, Krall depicts the life stories of a number of Holocaust survivors both male and female, young and old as well as Jew and Gentile. Primarily set in her native Poland but traversing pre-war, WWII and post-war periods, her accounts have the feel of fictional short stories, but according to the author anyway are all true.
With maybe the exception of one story, I liked everything in Krall’s collection. In addition, I thought Madeline Levine did a pretty adept job translating Krall’s Polish into English. Sadly, what I liked most about Krall’s book was its ability to transport me to pre-war Eastern Europe with its rich and colorful tapestry of Jewish culture. Vibrant, distinct but now gone, perhaps Krall said it best at the conclusion of her story “The Tree”:
That world is gone. The few survivors give no suggestion of this. They bring to mind an orchestra that I once heard in Russia. It was made up of musicians who participated in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. The composition was born in besieged Leningrad; it was played for the first time during the war. The musicians who had not perished at the front, who had not frozen to death, who had not died of hunger or old age, came together many years later and performed the symphony one more time. The conductor signaled to the orchestra and the surviving instruments responded. Sometimes only silence responded. Sometimes only a lone, absurd sound could be heard. The East European Jews sound today like that crippled symphony orchestra.