Read ‘Holy Week’ any time of year to better understand Poles and Jews during war-time Poland

May 5, 2010

Bobz Book Reviews

“Holy Week,”

by Jerzy Andrzejewski

A complex set of emotions eat at Jan Malecki when he runs into Irena Lilien, a Jewish friend, in Warsaw in the midst of World War II.

As the Nazi invaders tighten their grip and force Polish Jews into the now-famous Warsaw Ghetto, Malecki faces a Good-Samaritan-like opportunity: Should he do something to help Irena? What may be the consequences for him and for his wife, pregnant with their first child? What will the neighbors think, or worse, do? Can he get away with helping her?

Worse still, what does he lose if he doesn’t help her?

This is a fantastic novel in a fascinating historical timeframe — Holy Week, 1943 — the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when Jews began fighting back against their Nazi oppressors. First published in 1945, it was first translated into English more than 60 years later. The compact, 125-page story is supplemented in the Ohio University Press edition by background articles that are helpful in setting the stage to best take the reader back into World War II Poland. An afterword about Andrzej Wajda’s 1995 film based on the book and also titled “Holy Week” lends further insight into the context, primarily because it was a surprising box office flop.

Looking deeper into a human’s mind

Leon Uris’ “Mila 18” is undoubtedly the piece de resistance of fiction when it comes to telling the story of the Warsaw Ghetto, but in “Holy Week” author Andrzejewski helps us see not so wide a sweep as Uris but a concentrated focus on one man and the moral dilemmas he faced.

Does he stand with his Jewish friend and risk Nazi wrath for himself and his wife?

If he doesn’t help her, will he lose the respect of his wife and his brother, who is active in the resistance?

When others in his office openly speak out against  the killing of so many innocents, why is he unable to do so? Can he keep his safe life and secretly be the Good Samaritan?

Andrzejewski pulls no punches in describing the  bigotry of some Poles against Jews. It’s a rabid hatred very much like the bigotry you have likely heard and seen by white supremacists — and even your family, friends and neighbors? — in our own time. The aiding and abetting of the Germans by Poles — especially Catholic Poles — is a scar on Polish Catholicism, and Adrzejewski softly and subtly juxtaposes the irony of the faithful making their way to Holy Thursday and Good Friday devotions as German artillery blasts and burns buildings close enough for them to hear the booms and see the smoke.

But for Andrzejewski, all is complex. All Poles aren’t bigots. Some do resist. Some do speak out. Some are brought to tears be the thought of such terrible violence to others, even if they are Jewish.

And there are no easy decisions. Good actions are rewarded with bad consequences. Those who take risks, well — should they take them?

Read “Holy Week” to find out. — bz

About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski