'Missing Pieces' chronicles the lives of 'the few remaining Polish Jews'

Readings

October 24, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

" Missing Pieces," by Stanislaw Benski, translated from the Polish by Walter Arndt, 160 pages, A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, Harcourt Brace Janovich, New York, N.Y., $19.95.

In his "Missing Pieces" stories, Stanislaw Benski writes of the Poland of Jewish survivors, a vast painful country of empty villages, obliterated streets, lost homes and vanished people -- people who literally went up in smoke, as one of Benski's characters says.

BTC Benski's survivors are mostly old, wounded, scarred and disabled. Their scars and disabilities are, one supposes, the emblems of their survival.

They are the true ragged remnant of millions who passed through the Holocaust of the Nazi occupation of Poland, through the sewers and tunnels, the hidden cupboards, the forests and barns and manure pits, the transports and the death camps.

"I write about the few remaining Polish Jews," Benski says in a short note on the book jacket. "About their dreams, joys, and sorrows.

"I write . . . about the pious and impious, the honest and the dishonest, the intelligent and the simple, about those who are forever seeing the ghetto walls and the chimneys of the crematoria.

"I am among them," he says, "and I am one of them. I try to preserve their memory."

Benski was 17 in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. The Germans shot his father in 1941. His mother and brother died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Benski himself fought with the Polish army against the Germans. He won several decorations.

For the last 25 years of his life he was the director of the State Social Welfare Home for the Aged in Warsaw. He began writing short stories and novels in Polish when he was 40 and continued until his death two years ago.

Several of the stories in "Missing Pieces" are set in a nursing home, and they nicely balance the infirmities of age and sickness with the burdens of the past and the guilt survivors feel.

Benski's stories are straightforward, well-told tales written without much artifice but not without art. Memory and dreams constantly intrude on the present and reality. And the sorrows of his characters perhaps outweigh their joys. The tales of the survivors are complex and ambiguous and Benski allows them the dignity of their complexities and ambiguities.

In the characters Haskiel and Abram in the story "On the Corner," Benski finds a brilliant metaphor for the conflict between reality and illusion in the lives of his survivors.

Haskiel is a hunchback and Abram is blind. They met in Samarkand, a city in Soviet Central Asia where they survived World War II. Now Haskiel leads Abram through the streets of Warsaw -- "the old Warsaw, because Abram recognizes no other."

At the corner of Nowolipie and Smocza streets, Abram describes the scene as he "sees" it, which is teeming with the Jewish life of 1939.

Abram peoples the street from the catalog of his memory: Mr. Sewek's barber shop, Mrs. Scheyndl's candy stand, Mr. Boim the carter, Mr. Puch in the doorway of his herring shop, Mr. Haint, whose soap business is next door, and Mr. Bodo, a dealer in neckties and plaster of Paris.

"I know many people here," says Abram the blind man. "At Number Sixty-five there . . . in the basement lives the porter Feivel with his wife and five children, and higher up lives a kosher butcher. . . ."

But Haskiel sees a new street corner in new Warsaw, freshly stuccoed and empty of Jews after the destruction of the war and the Holocaust.

"There's no Number Sixty-five here," Haskiel says, "the street ends at Thirty-one, and on the opposite side is Twenty-eight. . . .

"Haskiel is tempted to tell Abram, finally, that the things Abram talks about, they all belong to the past, that there aren't any old tenements, or Jews with sidelocks here, or narrow little shops crammed with mended sacks, boxes, and barrels of sauerkraut or pickled herring . . . That he, Abram, is blind and dreaming.

"But Haskiel says nothing, because when he turns he sees that Abram is slowly tilting his head now to one side, now to the other, smiling, and one doesn't often see Abram smile."

And that's much the way Stanislaw Benski tells his stories of the missing pieces: with great truth and even greater compassion.

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