Off the Shelf: Tales from Poland and Israel

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There are several approaches to writing short stories. Some offer only a brief glimpse of a person’s life or thoughts. Others tell of events that encompass decades, but which focus only on the most relevant details. Each approach offers something different, reminding us of the unpredictable twists and turns life can take. These unexpected changes can be seen in two new works of short fiction. The tales in “I’d Like to Say Sorry, But There’s No One to Say Sorry to: Stories” by Mikolaj Grynberg (The New Press) are really vignettes – very brief episodes that carry a powerful punch. Omer Friedlander’s narratives in “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land: Stories” (Random House) are more complex, but effective in their own right. Underlying all the stories are the joys and sorrows of the human condition.

Grynberg, who lives in Poland, has published several non-fiction books about Polish Jews that focus on life after World War II. A trained psychologist, he gathered those histories while working as a photographer. In his first work of fiction, Grynberg distills what he learned into gem-like short works, most of which read like conversations. Some stories feature narrators who learn they are Jewish when a relative reveals the family secret. Other narrators are clear in their dislike of Jews, even when they are unsure of why. There are also Jewish Poles who discuss living in a country that makes them feel less than welcome.

“I’d Like to Say Sorry” is only 140 pages long, but contains more than 30 stories. What’s amazing is how complete and satisfying the stories are. For example, in “An Elegant Purse,” an estranged daughter pushes her mother to show her her grandparents’ graves, something the mother resists. The result is not what the daughter expects. Although two generations of the narrator’s family found shelter in “The Convent,” she hopes to prevent the same scenario from happening to future ones because being Jewish in Poland still feels unsafe. While more than happy to help tourists find the Jewish museum, the narrator of “Arkadia” performs a far greater service – a secret she won’t reveal to the tourists or friends. In “Sweet Dreams,” a man withdraws from his survivor mother, who has one last secret to reveal. “Bringing Families Together” shows how powerful photos taken after the war can be and what attention to detail can uncover. 

Grynberg’s stories show how some in Poland are still haunted by the events of World War II and their country’s actions during and after the war. His ability to distill so much meaning and feeling into a few short pages is astonishing, and makes his work well worth reading.

While Grynberg focuses on Poland, he and Friedlander do have something in common: neither has any illusions about the behavior of their homelands. In the brilliant “Checkpoint,” Friedlander manages to show sympathy and understanding to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in addition to offering a compassionate view of his main character: a woman who greatly mourns the loss of her son who was killed during his army service. That does not stop her, though, from documenting the behavior of Israeli solders at checkpoints to make certain the Palestinians passing through are treated humanely. This story alone is worth the price of Friedlander’s book.

Several stories focus on personal relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. For example, “Jaffa Oranges” allows the narrator to revisit his youth and the friendship he had with an Arab whose family owned the orange orchard where he once worked. These bittersweet memories remind him of actions he wishes he could change. Forbidden love occurs in “The Sand Collector,” although the young narrator is well aware that she can never marry the Bedouin who has captured her heart and imagination. Israeli army service informs two stories: “Jellyfish in Gaza” and “Walking Shiv’ah” portray how that service affects all members of a family, whether or not their loved one survives. 

While not every story focuses on the conflict, all portray their characters’ mixed emotions about the changes that naturally occur as people change and grow. Friedlander is definitely a writer to watch.