In his novel, Holy Week: A Novel of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jerzy  Andrzejewski poses a troubling and profound question through Anna, the young pregnant wife of Jan Malecki.

Anna asks,

Can one really take away someone’s dignity?

It is a vital question that touches our deepest understanding of what it means to be human. Anna has seen enough pain to convince anyone that the core of a human being could be utterly shattered by external circumstances. But, she wants to believe there is an invincible reality at the heart of the human condition that can never be destroyed.

Irena Lilien the Jewish woman Jan and Anna are harbouring in the Gentile section of Warsaw has lost any hope in an indomitable reality at the heart of every human being.  Irena answers Anna’s question saying,

Can one? Oh, yes! Believe me one can. One can tear anything out of people: their freedom, self-respect, desire, hope, everything! Even their fear… I have seen it with my own eyes. I have witnessed it personally. 45

For Irena, there is no unchangeable solid strength, or identity at the centre of any human being. Nothing is fixed; nothing is secure. “Everything” can be taken away.

Clearly, on the horizontal plane, Irena is right. Nothing material remains secure. All human relationships will let us down. We can lose our material well-being, our financial security, our health, our country, our home.  All that has contributed to our sense of identity will eventually fail.

So, is there then nothing left after we have been stripped of all external supports?

It appears, at the end of Andrzejewski’s novel, that indeed Irena is left with nothing.

In the last recorded words in Holy Week, Irena turns on her persecutors and Andrzejewski writes, the words,

“may the rest of you all die like dogs!” escaped her vengeful lips. “May you all burn just like us! May they shoot each and every one of you! I hope they murder you all!” (124)

All Irena has left is her anger, her bitterness, and her longing for vengeance. Who could blame her?

But are bitterness, revenge, and anger really all that lurks in the heart of the person who has been stripped of everything?

Another slender novel set in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of Poland suggests a different possibility.

Jerry Spinneli’s small young adult novel Milkweed tells the story of a Warsaw smuggler who begins the book known only as “Stopthief” and is eventually called Misha. This young boy, who survives by stealing, has nothing around which to form any secure sense of identity. He has no family, no home, and no safe means of support. He faces constant danger, abuse, and horrific violence. And yet, at his core, there is an indomitable, unshakeable, ill-defined something that just keeps on.

In the face of suffering and injustice Misha has taken to heart a lesson from Mr. Milgrom, his friend Janina’s father.  During the family’s impoverished celebration of Hanukah Misha asked Mr. Milgrom,

Tata, what is happy?

Mr. Milgrom replied with a question:

“Did you ever taste an orange?”…

“No,” I said, “but I heard of them. Are they real?”

“Never mind.” He stared at me some more. “Did you ever –” He stopped and shook his head.

After more staring, he said, “Were you ever cold, and then you were warm?”

I thought of sleeping with the boys under the braided rug: cold, then warm. “Yes!” I blurted. “Was that happy?”

He smiled, “That was happy.”

If this scene had ended here, Spinneli’s story would have carried less power than it does. But the exchange between Mr. Milgrom and Misha does not end with this version of “happy”. It goes on to describe Misha remembering,

I felt again the cuddled tent of warmth. Sometimes I would stick my nose out to better feel the warmth on the rest of me.

So Misha wonders, is “happy” only

“Under the rug”?

“No,” Mr. Milgrom said. He tapped my chest. “Happy is here.” He tapped his own chest. “Here.”

I looked down past my chin. “Inisde?”

“Inside.”

Jerry Spinelli seems to believe that, in the most horrific circumstances imaginable it remains possible to find an enduring sense of well-being that in the deepest sense, can be designated by the word “happy”. “Happy” is always an inside job.

Of course, who can say what one might have discovered within oneself in the horror of Nazi-occupied Warsaw? But, surely a belief in the possibility of an internal steady abiding reality of “happy”, offers more hope than seeking satisfaction in revenge or clinging to some illusion of justice in this world.

Advertisements