Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, it could be argued that the WWII event with the most enduring influence over geopolitics and western culture is the Holocaust. In its wake, a global awareness of the persecution of Jews emerged, which led to a climate of political acceptance for the establishment of the nation of Israel. Its architects believed that a homeland would end the Jewish predicament of perpetual wandering and ensure cultural survival. The ensuing Middle East conflict has dominated global public discourse ever since.
When adults discuss the problem of evil with children, the Holocaust is cited as a primary example. The human experience of Holocaust survivors uncovered a trove of stories begging to be told. As the graphic horror of the concentration camps was too disturbing for mass consumption, other, less traumatizing narratives would introduce the world to the institutionalized evil of the period. The plight of the Holocaust child was among the first such portrayals in literature and art.
The Diary of Anne Frank is the most famous account of a child’s Holocaust odyssey. The protagonist is a school-aged Jewish girl living in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland. Her diary entries document both the fear of her predicament and the wonderment and naïveté of her age.
There is another childhood Holocaust narrative in contemporary literature told from the viewpoint of a Jewish boy. The protagonist learns his family has been executed by the Nazis. Left to survive by his wits at the mercy of strangers, he drifts throughout the countryside, hiding his ethnic identity lest he is identified by Nazi forces or hostile locals.
The most famous of these is The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. Published as a novel in 1965, it was met with widespread acclaim, receiving France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. As the first account of its kind, it was hailed as an instant classic and translated into multiple languages.
The book was controversial in its portrayal of Polish peasantry. The main character is subjected to abuse and trauma as he drifts around rural Poland where he witnesses incest, bestiality and rape. With its foray into taboo subjects, The Painted Bird acquired an underground cachet.
In 1967, Jack Kuper published his memoir of growing up as an orphaned Polish Jew in Nazi-occupied, rural Poland. Child of The Holocaust details his boyhood experience being taken on as a farmhand by a Polish family. He later learns that his family has been captured by the Nazis.
Unlike Kosinski’s traumatized character in The Painted Bird, Kuper was kept alive by the kindness and, occasionally, the indifference of Polish strangers. Fearing that trusting the wrong person could end in persecution and death, he dropped all pretense of Jewish identity to stay alive only to later reconnect with his heritage and reclaim his sense of self. Kuper’s account has been widely translated and is still in print today.
Jerzy Kosinski enjoyed continued literary success after The Painted Bird. His next book, Steps, won the National Book Award in 1969. Being There was made into a movie starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. He won the 1971 Oscar for Best Screenplay. He enjoyed celebrity status, appearing no fewer than twelve times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. By way of his friendship with Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski, he furthered his legend as a defier of fate in a macabre chain of events.
In August 1969, he was invited to stay at the Benedict Canyon home of Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate. His luggage was misdirected en route from Paris to Los Angeles and his travels were delayed by a day. As he waited for his next flight, the notorious Manson Family carried out the gruesome murders of Sharon Tate and her guests.
Warren Beatty cast Kosinski as a Bolshevik Revolutionary in his epic film, Reds, about the American Communist Party. He posed for celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz in the New York Times Magazine. His marriage to heiress and socialite Mary Weir thrust him deeper into the world of wealth, celebrity and privilege. These associations would find their way into his writing, most notably in Blind Date and Passion Play.
As Kosinski cultivated his celebrity image through a carefully crafted mythology, the interest he attracted brought scrutiny. There were accusations of plagiarism from editors and translators who said that they effectively wrote his books without credit. As a non-native speaker, his mastery of English was questioned. Condemnations were leveled by fellow Poles who knew him in childhood. They found his depictions of townspeople insulting and disingenuous, stating that he lived through the Holocaust, not in danger, but in relative comfort. The affront to national pride resulted in The Painted Bird being banned in Poland until 1989.
His later life was a journey into sexual adventure and hedonism. His last novel, The Hermit of 69th Street, drew from this period and was a critical failure. After attending a house party held by writer Gay Talese, Kosinski took his own life at age 57. His suicide note made no reference to the growing storm around his artistic integrity.
While his literary legacy is considerable, Kosinski’s controversies of authenticity leave unanswered questions. His public biography includes surviving Nazi occupation, escaping Soviet Russia, starting life over in the West and working menial jobs to becoming an internationally renowned writer.
His life story is a marvel of heroism, survival instincts and accomplishments. Any one such episode would be the stuff of legend, but all of them packed into a single lifetime serve to infuse Kosinski with superhuman qualities that inspire awe. Until the controversies, his biography was successfully marketed as a literary Horatio Alger story. To his credit, the chronological benchmarks exist to support his claims.
Must a writer’s life live up to the legend of their words? In the construction of his public persona, Kosinski lived as though this standard must be upheld. It is understandable that, as the basis of his literary accomplishments came into question, he would not bear a public dismantling. I have yet to discover another writer whose works and life are as compelling.
Jack Kuper’s life was a model of stability and modesty by comparison. Before writing Child of the Holocaust, he established himself in advertising, television and film as a director/producer in Toronto. He worked for Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, before establishing Kuper Productions Ltd.
Kuper later befriended Kosinski and expounded on their relationship in his documentary Who was Jerzy Kosinski? The film lauds Kosinski’s achievements while asking pressing questions about his authenticity, stopping short of passing judgment. Kuper would not publish another book until 1994, when the sequel to Child of the Holocaust was released. After The Smoke Cleared retells Kuper’s post-Holocaust life, including a reunification with his father.
The jury as to who are the true children of the Holocaust seems to rule in favor of Jack Kuper for the boys and Anne Frank for the girls. In viewing the evidence, it is important to distinguish between novel and memoir. A novel is a work of fiction, and creative license legitimately comes into play. Not so with a memoir.