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  • Night Voices: Heard in the Shadows of Hitler and Stalin
  • Michael R. Marrus (bio)
Heather Laskey. Night Voices: Heard in the Shadows of Hitler and Stalin McGill-Queen’s University Press. xii, 260. $26.95

Part memoir, part accompanying testimony, part narrative, this moving story of the wartime and postwar odyssey of a small segment of the Polish Jewish elite recounts the life of its troubled and perceptive central character - Halifax resident and physician Stasia Ałpin-Rubiłowicz, née Grynbaum. Names tell part of the story. After divorcing Stasia's beloved father, Bolesłav Grynbaum, Stasia's mother, a self-absorbed and beautiful actress, Irena Grywiōńska-Adwentowicz, née Stange, converted to Catholicism in order to marry the distinguished actor and producer Karol Adwentowicz. Irena took her mother's maiden name, Stange, which had no Jewish association, and added a Polish stage name, Grywińska, to that of Stasia's second husband - 'covering her tracks,' as Stasia laconically puts it. Stasia's mother not only sheltered her young daughter from any trace of Jewishness, she positively loathed any Jewish association, even when it had no consequence whatever. 'I know that she implanted some of this self-hatred in me,' Stasia comments. 'I never deny being a Jew, but it is something that does not particularly appeal to me.' Irena's turbulent love life and her incapacity as a mother have haunted Stasia all her life. None of her closest relations, with her husbands Ałapin and Rubiłowicz, or her son, were fully satisfactory. 'Probably I should neither have married nor had children, because, in truth, the only person I ever really loved was my father, and the only child was myself.'

Stasia confronted Polish anti-Semites at university, survived the Warsaw Ghetto, where she felt rejected by the Jews, and escaped the Nazis through the exceptional generosity of Polish rescuers. For her, the Holocaust broke forever her allegiance to fellow Poles, whose disdain she felt throughout the war. 'It was more than a humiliation; it was abasement, mortification - my soul conquered by ugliness. I found myself compelled to confront the essence of that sense of inferiority which I had before refused to recognize [End Page 500] and to name. ... Never again could I feel that these were my people. The disdain in their eyes made me a lifelong refugee, forever a person without a country, without a place.'

Despite the horrors, Stasia and her like-minded Jewish friends remained in Poland after the war, reassembled their shattered personal lives, and pondered a terrible question: Why had they survived? She was haunted by 'the images and sounds of the war and of the ghetto ... from which I am never free,' she insists. With others, her answer, for a time, was to commit herself to the one project that seemed to make sense in light of the past - 'to help to build a socialist society - the phoenix that would arise from the ashes, the society that would eradicate injustice and anti-Semitism.' Idealistic, Stasia joined the Party, poured herself into her medical practice, and tried to ignore the corruption and cruelty of the regime. She married, and enjoyed, for a time, the privileges of the nomenklatura.

Eventually, this illusion dissolved - prompted mostly, it seems, by the resurgent anti-Semitism of the Polish regime, together with the absurdities, for her, of the Soviet Doctor's Plot, in the last gasps of Stalinism, in which Jewish doctors were supposed to have schemed to murder members of the Politburo. In 1957, Stasia emigrated to Israel with her husband, remaining for more than fifteen years. Unsurprisingly, she was unhappy there, and eventually moved to Canada to be near her son. In Halifax, we learn, she studies arts at university, occasionally attends an Anglican church, and has learned to paint icons.

Complex and introspective, Stasia now proclaims her life 'a failure, a waste, and a defeat.' The main cause, she knows, was the war. But there are also personal reasons, relayed by a deeply sensitive, talented, insightful, and ruthlessly honest soul. Heather Laskey presents her story well - although she encumbers it unnecessarily, in my view, with somewhat flat additional material. What...


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pp. 500-501
Launched on MUSE
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