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Polish author opens up about her hidden Jewish past

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Agata Tuszynska
Agata Tuszynska

The Polish writer Agata Tuszynska was 19 when she discovered she was not who she thought she was. Her mother, journalist Halina Przedborska, told her that she was Jewish.

Forty years later, Tuszynska talks openly about the revelation, but it took her a long time to assimilate this fact and its consequences.

“I was brought up in a Polish family,” she said. “For a long time, I lived a schizophrenic double life, not knowing how to reveal to the world, as I saw it, the terrible truth,” said Tuszynska.

Being the child of a Holocaust survivor was not something to boast about for her generation, she admits, or even to mention in public.

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Indeed, her mother had been happy to raise her daughter, a typical blue-eyed, blonde Pole, as just that, shielded from the past.

Tuszynska’s 2005 biography of her Jewish and Polish ancestors, A Family History of Fear, was a bestseller and was nominated for France’s Prix Médicis.

This spring, a decade after its translation into French from the original Polish, the book will be published in English by Knopf.

Tuszynska, who divides her time today among Warsaw, Paris and Toronto, is a featured writer at the 18th edition of the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival taking place from April 11 to 17 at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal.

She will be interviewed by Shelley Pomerance on April 17 about uncovering her family’s hidden history.

Tuszynska appears on several other occasions during the festival, including at a French session on April 16, when she discusses her latest novel, La fiancée de Bruno Schulz, shortlisted for a Médicis, as well as for the Prix Femina.

It casts a new light on the character of the revered Polish Jewish writer and artist, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1942 in the Drohobycz ghetto.

In the 1930s, Schulz, not known for romantic entanglements, proposed marriage to his muse, the little-known, sultry Jozefina Szelinska.

Tuszynska has spent much of her career exploring the destroyed world of Polish Jewry, and one of her first books was a biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of her early heroes.

In 2010, she published The Accused: Vera Gran, the controversial story of a popular Jewish cabaret singer in prewar Poland, who was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Gran was accused of collaborating with the Nazis, denounced as a traitor, and her life thereafter was ruined. Tuszynska tracked her down to document the reclusive former star’s version of what happened, before her death in 2007.

Elsewhere at Blue Met, there will once again be an Israeli presence, thanks to support from the Israeli Consulate.

Ayelet Tsabari is author of the debut short story collection The Best Place on Earth, winner of the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Born in Israel to a Yemeni family, she moved to Vancouver in 1998, and today teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto.

Ayelet Tsabari
Ayelet Tsabari

A second scheduled Israeli, Aylet Gundar-Groshen, author of the Sapir Prize-winning debut novel One Night, Markovitch, is a late cancellation.

Tsabari will be on an April 16 panel with writers from Ireland and Germany, and in one-on-one conversation with Joseph Rosen about her stories that explore the complex emotional lives of women on April 17.

Also of note:

  • Eleanor Wachtel, who has hosted Writers & Company on CBC Radio for 25 years, will be “on the other side of the mic” with Will Aitken on April 15.
  • Local authors launch books published by Linda Leith Publishing on April 15: Elaine Kalman Naves, of the novel The Book of Faith, set in the Montreal Jewish community, and Jack Jedwab, of the non-fiction Counter-terrorism and Identities: Canadian Viewpoints, while Montreal-born, Toronto-based author Nora Gold, winner of a 2015 Canadian Jewish Literary Award, launches her novel The Dead Man (Inanna Publications) on April 17. It’s about a woman, a composer, obsessed inexplicably with a famous music critic, with much of the action taking place in Israel.
  • Two-time cancer survivor Susan Wener, author of the 2014 memoir Resilience: A Story of Courage and Triumph in the Face of Recurrent Cancer, and Monique Polak, best known for her young adult fiction, lead a writing workshop at the Jewish General Hospital on April 10 geared to women who have received a cancer diagnosis.

READ: DEBUT AUTHOR DRAWS ON FAMILY’S WARTIME EXPERIENCES

  • The life and career of a Montreal-born icon are explored at a French roundtable titled “A Crack in Everything: l’Héritage de Leonard Cohen” on April 15.
  • Canadian novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald, who served as Concordia University’s inaugural Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence this year, and students offer a multimedia survey of the late author’s legacy, at Concordia on April (in a post-festival event).

As part of Blue Met’s children’s programming, the Jewish Public Library holds a workshop with Helaine Becker for six-year-olds in how to create funny stories, and, at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, high school students from across the province launch the short videos they made about the contribution of First Nations members, visible minorities and women during World War II, both on April 14.