As a young girl, she idolized Marlene Dietrich; much later she sang with Charles Aznavour and was compared to Edith Piaf. Vera Gran, who burst to fame as a teenage Polish Jewish singer in the 1930s, craved admiration. “I wanted to stir emotions,” she proclaimed. She did so with her seductive contralto voice. But when she ended up singing in the nightclubs of the Warsaw ghetto during the German occupation, she stirred much more dangerous passions. For the rest of her long life, she was subjected to accusations that she had collaborated with the Nazis, fueling her increasing desperation and isolation.
By the time Agata Tuszynska, a Polish poet and biographer of Isaac Bashevis Singer, first managed to convince Gran to admit her into her dust-filled, nearly sealed-off Paris apartment in 2003, she was 87, bore almost no resemblance to the glamorous beauty captured in earlier photos and was understandably paranoid. Yet with infinite patience, Tuszynska coaxed her to recount her version of events. This, along with Tuszynska’s review of every bit of testimony she could find, allowed her to write “Vera Gran: The Accused.” It is as much a moving meditation on survival and morality amid the horrors of the Holocaust as it is a reconstruction of Gran’s tragic tale.
Born into a poor family, Vera Grynberg, who later went by the stage name Gran, wanted to be a dancer in Warsaw. After an auto accident ended that dream, she quickly found her calling as a cabaret singer, regularly sang on Polish Radio, and made records and advertisements. She sang in Polish but also had a role in the last Yiddish film made before the war. Suddenly, she was a star, making more than a good living, providing help to her mother and older sisters.
When the Germans invaded, she had a chance to flee to Italy but passed it up. “I was brazenly young, unaware of what threatened us in this situation,” she recalled. Kazimierz Jezierski, a young doctor, made it his mission to save her. He whisked her away to northeastern Poland, where he presented her as his wife. But she insisted on going to Lwow, then part of Soviet-occupied Poland, to resume her cabaret singing. When her mother refused to leave Warsaw, Gran and Jezierski returned to German-occupied Poland.
She began singing in the Cafe Sztuka, inside the Warsaw ghetto. While the Polish underground ordered artists not to perform in German-run theaters and stages and executed collaborators, looser rules applied inside the ghetto. Wladyslaw Szpilman, who gained posthumous fame because of Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist,” based on his memoir, was one of Gran’s accompanists. Both managed to survive, but their fates afterward couldn’t have been more different. He was celebrated, she was denounced.
For 15 months she performed in the ghetto. She wanted to be admired again, but she also wanted to survive — and to ensure that her mother would, too. That meant performing before “the rich people in the ghetto, the black marketers, guys from the Jewish police, all those . . . who refused to end up as victims, or as a bar of soap,” Gran told Tuszynska. “I didn’t want to become soap.” Her mother didn’t survive, nor did a son who lived only three months. But Gran, thanks to the faithful Jezierski, managed to escape the ghetto and go into hiding.
When the war ended, she went to Szpilman, then the musical director of Polish Radio. “You are not dead!?” he exclaimed. Refusing to hire her, he told her of the accusation that she had worked for the Gestapo. She appealed for an investigation, but was arrested and interrogated. Eventually the citizens’ court of the Central Committee of Polish Jews heard more than 50 witnesses, who offered conflicting testimony. After more than two years, it acquitted her of all charges.
Soon Gran left both Jezierski and Poland, hoping for a new life. She performed in France, Venezuela, the United States— including at Carnegie Hall—and Israel. But the accusations followed her, with added venom. In Israel, there were calls for a boycott of “the Gestapo whore.” She claimed to have helped feed hungry Jewish children; her accusers claimed she turned in Jews.
She sought outside help. Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote to her in 1972: “Your name does not appear among those who have collaborated with the Germans.” But nothing could stop her accusers, and she lashed back. She claimed to have seen Szpilman in the ghetto in 1942 outfitted as a Jewish policeman and rounding up Jews. Tuszynska found no evidence to substantiate that charge but is puzzled that Szpilman never mentioned Gran in his memoir. She wonders whether he was trying to expunge Gran from his story because of the accusations against her.
Gran died in 2007. For Tuszynska, the bitter aftertaste of all the accusations and counter-accusations remains. “What would you have done to save your skin? And to save your mother?” she asks. “Who has the right to judge the survivors?”
The author, who discovered her own Jewish origins when she was 19, offers no answers. And while often exhausted by the haunted old woman she found in Paris, she can’t help but sympathize with her. “I have the feeling of being caught, just like Vera, in this web of contradictory testimony,” she concludes. Any reader of this harrowing book is likely to feel exactly the same way.
By Agata Tuszynska
Translated from the French of Isabelle Jannes-Kalinowski by Charles Ruas
Knopf. 305 pp. $28.95