PEN Atlas editor Tasja Dorkofikis interviews Hanna Krall, author of Chasing the Kings of Hearts, a book which recreates the Holocaust not as an historical event but as a terrifying shared experience. Her literary reportage about the Holocaust is unparalleled in its power and immediacy and is available in the UK for the first time
Interview translated from the Polish by Tasja Dorkofikis
You are a reporter and you describe your work as reportage. How do you see the role of a reporter? And how does it differ from the role of a writer? What is the essence of writing and of looking at the world from the perspective of a reporter?
These two roles differ in their attitude to characters. A writer creates a character and if he wants, he can know everything about him, while a reporter has to find out and knows only as much as his subject wants to tell him. He depends on his subject and even if he finds things out, he is not always able to understand everything he is told.
What are the limits of reportage and the curiosity of a reporter?
Each time a reporter needs to establish the limits of curiosity. There is a difference between curiosity and prying. It’s good not to cross that boundary. The limit is the subject’s sensitivity and their privacy. One should not hurt the subject, encroach on their privacy. When I was young I thought that one can do anything for the sake of reportage, and now, with age, I try to spare people.
One reads Chasing the King of Hearts with bated breath and the story of the main character, Izolda Regensberg, is incredibly dramatic. Born with looks which allowed her to pass for a Pole, Izolda was able to become Maria Pawlicka in order to save her husband, taken to Mauthausen. She loses her entire family and via Vienna is sent to Auschwitz, and then finds herself in Berlin, passing as a German. Her odyssey continues after the war. To what extent is this book based on a real story?
Chasing the King of Hearts is true, there is no fiction there. Sometimes, I allowed myself a certain degree of freedom. In the book, the heroine puts her bag on the table ‘like a Jewess’. I had to describe that bag – it was a yellow bag made of pig skin and here I allowed myself to change this bag to one belonging to my friend, the film director Izabella Cywińska. Both bags were bought in the same shop, both were authentic, it’s just that the one described in the book did not belong to Izolda.
How do you look for subjects and how did you find Izolda?
Izolda called me in 1988 and asked me to write about her. She thought that I knew about love and about war. We talked in Vienna, in Israel and in Warsaw. We started in 1988 and talked for years. Izolda had an incredible memory and recalled every detail. When I was in Vienna I sat in the café where she was arrested. Everything was in the same place as she described it. The mirror, the tables, and in the mirror one could see the door, through which the Gestapo entered; and the way from the café to the Gestapo building was the same too.
Izolda’s name is on the list of people transported to Auschwitz. I trust my characters, but I verify the truth if I can.
Details are always very important in your books. The reader knows exactly what clothes Izolda is wearing. A meaningful pack of cards keeps reappearing. Could you tell us how you use these details and facts? How do you choose what you focus on?
The world is woven from details. And a reporter needs to select those that have the power of a metaphor. An armchair, from which a paralysed old woman got up after having seen her husband killed. Marek Edelman’s red jumper.
I allowed myself to shorten Izolda’s coat in the book. She was stopped by the criminal police and it turned out that they took her for a whore not a Jewess. Izolda must have been provocatively dressed, so she needed to have a short coat in order that the reader could see her long legs. So I shortened her coat. Apart from that everything in this book is authentic.
In my book there is also a scene in Auschwitz, when Izolda and her friend, Janka Tempelhof, approached Mengele and said that they were nurses and they would like to join the prisoner transport. He arranged a quick exam on the spot to find out whether this was the truth. And Izolda told me that Mengele was a beautiful man, but the only thing that disfigured him was a gap between his teeth. I checked whether Mengele really had a diastema and it turned out that his diastema really intrigued him and he wanted to find out whether it was a genetic characteristic. That’s how his interest in genetics started. One could say that this diastema led him to the ramp in Auschwitz.
Izolda survives the war, by chance, but also thanks to her strong will and initiative. In your view, is Izolda’s story about chance or destiny?
Izolda believed in the power of destiny, in the sequence of events which led somewhere. She decided that her husband would survive. And thanks to that, she survived too. And Izolda strongly believed that only her activities and the power of her love kept him alive. She was brave, full of initiative and ideas. Only she and her husband survived out of their whole family.
Is Chasing the King of Hearts a book about love?
This book is about a few things, for example about love, but also about the superiority of foolishness over reason. There are two characters: Izolda Ragensberg and Janka Tempelhof. Janka Tempelhof was a model student, took only sensible decisions, was always reasonable. And out of these two women, only Izolda survived the war thanks to her foolishness.
To Outwit God (first published as Shielding the Flame; Conversations with Marek Edelman) introduces the subject of the Holocaust in your work, which has since appeared regularly. Do you think that the history of the Holocaust can be expressed and described? Marcel Reich-Ranicki said about your books, that there is no ‘mercy or sentimentalism, only a hard retelling of how it was.’
In my opinion the Holocaust can be described but not understood. We are all helpless facing the enormity of the past. Stories of the Holocaust are stories in which everything has been multiplied. Enormous evil and enormous good. As in the story of Apolonia Machczyńska, who hid 25 Jews in the granary of her estate near Kocko, even though she had three children and was pregnant with the fourth. The Jews were killed and Apolonia was shot by a German policeman. Then she was awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”.
Christopher Browning describes the story of a group of German civilians, who are too old to go to the front, in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 11 and the Final Solution in Poland. They create a battalion, and come to Eastern Poland near Lublin to kill Jews. And there they learn to kill. What’s more, a group of artists from Berlin come to visit them, and then join them for a day to do some killing too. This satanic evil of the artists from Berlin and the enormous goodness of Apolonia Machczyńska – these are the situations beyond our understanding. But one should try to tell these stories. Each time one reaches some mystery, something which is inexpressible.
You occasionally include episodes from your life in your reportage. How do you write about yourself?
I write about my own life, but always in the third person, as that allows me to look at myself as if I’m one of my own characters. Writing in the first person makes the narrative sound plaintive, and full of martyrdom.
Polish reportage is well known and respected in the world. Are there any young Polish reportage writers whom you would like to recommend to British readers and publishers?
Polish reportage is certainly doing well. Some time ago there was an excellent group of Polish composers, including Lutosławski and Penderecki, or a group of Polish poets with Miłosz, Szymborska and Herbert, the same way now we are going through a golden age of Polish reportage. There are many writers of reportage of the highest calibre like Mariusz Szczygieł, who writes on Czechoslovakia (as was), Wojciech Tochman on Rwanda and Bosnia and Wojciech Gorecki on the Caucasus.
What do you think about the fact that your books are now on the lists of set texts in schools in Poland; in 2010 To Outwit God was one of the two A-level subjects next to Moliere?
What can I think? I am pleased that my writing can be beneficial, that somebody has a use for it.
About the author
Hanna Krall was born in 1935 in Poland and survived the Second World War hiding on the Aryan side (outside the getto) in Warsaw. Her family perished in the war. She began her writing career as a prize-winning journalist. Since the early ’80s she has worked as a novelist and continued writing reportage. Since Shielding the Flame; Conversations with Marek Edelman (later published as To Outwit God and available in the US) she has started writing reportage about the Holocaust.
She has received numerous Polish and international awards, such as the underground Solidarity Prize, Polish PEN Club Prize, the German Würth Preis for European Literature 2012 and the Austrian Herder Prize. Translated into 17 languages, her work has gained widespread international recognition. In 2007 Król kier znów na wylocie (Chasing the King of Hearts) was shortlisted for the Angelus Central European Literary Award. This is her first book available in the UK, though a few of her other books are available in English in the US.
About the editor
Tasja Dorkofikis is the editor of the PEN Atlas as well as a freelance editor and publicist. She used to work as Publicity Director at Random House and most recently at Portobello Books as Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor. Tasja shares her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.
Philip Boehm is the author of more than two dozen translations of novels and plays by German and Polish writers, including Nobelist Herta Müller, Christoph Hein, Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Chwin. Nonfiction translations include A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous and Words to Outlive Us, a collection of eyewitness accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto. For his work as a translator he has received numerous awards, most recently the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize (UK), the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize (US), and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He also works as a playwright and theater director, and is the Founding Artistic Director of Upstream Theater in St. Louis.
Interview originally published by PEN Atlas